Down and out
Fun fact: Alan Arkin, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken never have been in a movie together. Even now. Stand Up Guys doesn’t count; it’s more like a one-act play, photographed for posterity still with notes scribbled in its own margins. It’s called Stand Up Guys for the cliché’s sake, but the whole thing just seems to want to lie down for a while, maybe forever.
To some extent, the audience for this is self-selecting. Anybody who heard there’d be an Arkin-Pacino-Walken gangster comedy and wasn’t already disappointed probably won’t be disappointed. That leaves the rest of us wondering how far we ought to keep extending the credit these actors earned in their heyday, which seems long enough ago now that its memory has been almost entirely overwritten by lazy mythology. Stand Up Guys’ most authentic aspect is the unfortunate suggestion that its leads’ best days really are behind them.
Pacino gets out of prison after a long stint that might have been shorter if he’d tattled on his friends; Walken, the best of his pals, now has orders to kill him. Who’d give such illogical orders? Only “the meanest, most vindictive motherfucker outside the devil himself,” a crime boss played by Mark Margolis and introduced through a stale series of angry-goombah phone calls. These leave Walken with an hour-and-half in which to look like he’s procrastinating the decision to euthanize a sickly pet.
While we’re supposed to wonder what he’ll do, he takes Pacino out for a night of mischief and sentimental wiseguy reminiscence. Needing “to party,” they go to a brothel. Needing Viagra, they rob a pharmacy. Needing medical attention for a Viagra overdose, they go to the ER, where the habit of demoting actors into dull parodies of their past personas continues, and Julianna Margulies plays a nurse.
It so happens that her father—played by Arkin—is the guys’ former getaway driver, now withering away in an old-folks’ home. They break him out. They go back to the brothel. They steal a car and find a naked woman in its trunk, then gallantly abet her brutal revenge on the thugs who put her there. Now and then they pause for steaks and more reminiscence at the all-night diner where a cute young waitress has nothing better to do than be perky and adore them. She figures into the plot, preposterously, too.
Spoiler alert: One of the guys dies. It’s hard to blame him, given a story not worth sticking around for. We do get that it’s supposed to be a last hurrah anyway, and no amount of unnaturally outrageous pseudo-Tarantino antics can shake off the reflective mood. “Like the old days,” Arkin says. “No, better,” says Pacino. “Yeah,” Arkin says, why?” “Because we can appreciate it,” says Pacino.
Well, if he says so. Pacino still gives off the same frothy babble he’s been good for since whenever he became so depressingly easy to imitate, only now it comes in a lethargic ooze. Arkin obviously has a knack for capering, but here he’s a blur, still gliding down that no-resistance zipline from Little Miss Sunshine all the way to Argo. Walken comes closest to real dignity, but only when not saying anything. Otherwise, his line readings range from characteristically quixotic to just wrong, and there’s the sense that neither screenwriter Noah Haidle nor director Fisher Stevens would’ve dared to correct him.
And we’re just supposed to be grateful, too, for the privilege of witnessing this particular power trio noodling together at last. It’s as if asking Stand Up Guys to work harder—at honoring what these three actors have meant to us and at wringing real pathos from the innately absurd ravages of time—would be asking too much. Instead of playing out patiently and with real feeling, like one of the fine old soul grooves filling up its soundtrack, it figures just having the soundtrack is enough. Well, that, plus the requisite Viagra gag, which perhaps couldn’t be avoided, as any suggestion of potency here is grotesquely synthetic.
Stand Up Guys does get us thinking about mortality. Someday, there’ll be no more old-man dick schtick or shots looking up at gangsters from inside a car trunk, and then what’ll the movies do?