Directed by Fisher Stevens
Written by Noah Haidle
Embarrassment sets in after roughly 15 minutes of Stand Up Guys, not so much for its stars, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, going through the motions of hacky jokes about how good the old days were. Instead, the kind of awkward feeling this film inspires is reserved for the way you may feel about your grandparents or your uncle when they’re called upon to pontificate on modern society, so they can tell you how they feel about the rap music or the Google or something along those lines. Pacino, Walken, and Alan Arkin, the supposed titular characters, have all proven in the past their brilliance as performers. Whatever nostalgia you may have, and hope that their uniting here will bear enjoyable fruit, will be dampened soon enough.
Pacino is Val, who’s just ended a 28-year stint in prison. Only his best friend Doc (Walken) stayed in touch with Val, going so far as to pick his old buddy up when he walks out of prison a free man. What Val soon learns is that their old boss, Claphands, still harbors murderous feelings towards Val for inadvertently causing his son’s death in the botched job that sent him to the slammer; thus, Doc has been ordered to kill Val within the next 24 hours, or else they’ll both be six feet under. Doc tries to push the deadline as long as he can, taking Val around town by having one last fling, from frequenting a brothel to springing an old pal (Arkin) out of his retirement home for a night on the town. And oh, the wackiness does ensue.
One of Stand Up Guys’ big problems, actually, is that wackiness does ensue. (Leave aside, for a second, the fact that most of its humor falls flat either because Pacino’s comic timing is in need of repair or because the gags just aren’t funny.) Early on, Doc’s goal is revealed, as is his understandable anguish at being told to off his partner in crime. And then Doc and Val steal prescription drugs so Val can become horny enough to sleep with a hooker. The gangster-ized Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also steal a car and break into various stores, giddily treating the world as their playground in which to putter around, even though we’re meant to wonder when or if Doc will put a bullet in Val’s brain. Mixing goofy comedy with grim reality is possible, but director Fisher Stevens and writer Noah Haidle don’t even attempt to blend the tones. Instead, scenes crash against each other, veering from faux-outrageous sex humor to a would-be heartfelt display of honest emotion, making Stand Up Guys a new case of cinematic whiplash.
Pacino, Walken, and Arkin do mostly what’s expected of them. Pacino will be the chatty character, the one who’s looking at all the angles all the time. Walken, the oddball with a serious streak. (Thankfully, he’s most unscathed here, rarely called upon to make his unique style of speaking a joke unto itself.) And Arkin, the irascible coot, though this particular old-timer has a surprising (and ridiculous) dexterity behind the wheel of a stolen sports car. Unexpectedly, Stand Up Guys is all resting on Pacino and Walken, presuming you can look past the many gaping holes in the paper-thin plot. Arkin shows up for about 30 minutes, but otherwise, Pacino and Walken are in every scene, often ambling down a deserted-looking alleyway or street at night. The more scenes we get of these two hanging out, the more time we have to ruminate on how nonsensical the conflict is. The notion of a mobster breathing down Doc’s neck to put Val in the ground could be intense, but it looks like Claphands (Mark Margolis, who struck fear in everyone’s hearts simply by ringing a bell on Breaking Bad, and strikes nothing here) has two associates, and that’s it. Where’s the threat in a three-on-two fight?
Stand Up Guys is as low-stakes as it gets, baffling considering how quickly we’re told to care about a life-or-death situation. Two-thirds of the way through the film, Val emphasizes that he and Doc represent, to a group of despicable thugs, consequences for their nefarious actions. Yet Stand Up Guys avoids consequences every chance it gets, not only in how Doc and Val try to make what they can with the little time they have left as friends. No, each action they make requires a reaction, ones that never come. As such, Stand Up Guys winds up as a lazy, derivative (in really emphatic ways), and awkward senior fantasy, boosted only by how much you like its leads. The more goodwill you have, the longer you’ll last, but unlike Val in a painful-for-more-than-one-reason sequence, you won’t have to see a doctor.
— Josh Spiegel