Going in Style is another entry in a tried and true subgenre of comedies where past their prime geezers either at or past the age of retirement try to prove that they “still got it.” They often feature A-list casts chock full of people who don’t really need the work, and they’re usually as useless and lightweight as a fart in church. Most films like this were made in the past two decades, but it’s not a recent trend, since Going in Style is itself a remake of a 1979 film that featured what was an A-list cast of old folks back when it was first made.
What I’m saying is that Going in Style is completely redundant in every respect, but it isn’t offensive or a drag to watch. For this type of film, it’s actually on the high side of the quality meter. For any film with this kind of cast and this much pedigree, however, it’s an incredible letdown. It’s never bad enough to suggest that the people involved with it were blackmailed or coerced into doing it, but that only made me wonder further what the point of making this was for anyone involved.
Joe Harding (Michael Caine) is a retired NYC steelworker who has fallen on hard times after the company that used to employ him ships all their holdings overseas and dissolves the pension fund for all former employees. Joe cares and provides for his adult daughter (Maria Dizzia) and teenage granddaughter (Joey King), but his bank has tripled his mortgage payment interest rates without notice and they don’t want to hear any excuses. He has thirty days to come up with the payments or they’ll foreclose on his home. Joe’s best friends and former co-workers aren’t faring much better. Willie (Morgan Freeman) can only prolong dialysis for so long and is in desperate need of a kidney. Willie’s roommate, Al (Alan Arkin), a former sax player turned private tutor, is just counting down the days till he dies, but he’s also beginning a flirtation with an interested and intriguing grocery clerk (Ann-Margret), so maybe he’d be doing the best of the bunch. After witnessing a bank robbery, Joe concocts an idea that he and his buddies can steal just enough money to cover his mortgage and their pension plans for the rest of their lives. They’re skeptical, but then they realize that if they get caught and tossed into prison, they probably wouldn’t live much longer and their quality of life might go up.
This remake of Going in Style has been written by Theodore Melfi, who most recently was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Hidden Figures. If this career trajectory continues, he’ll prove to be the go-to prestige screenwriter for middlebrow, vaguely uplifting fare. It’s not too shocking that a recent Oscar nominee wrote this, but it is somewhat shocking that it’s directed by once promising actor and director Zach Braff. Say what one might about Garden State or Wish I Was Here, Braff’s two previous outings as a director, but those were films made with a clear sense of purpose and style. Outside of a stacked soundtrack of classic rock, soul, and hip-hop (Braff’s stock-in-trade), Going in Style looks and feels like it could have been made by a computer or committee rather than someone once thought of as being somewhat of an up and coming auteur.
Braff has a distinct awkwardness when it comes to staging set pieces, so he doesn’t even try. The entire lead up to the heist where these previously uninitiated criminal types are taught the ropes by a former bank robber (John Ortiz) has been reduced to a single montage. The actual heist seems to only set up that they get the money, and there’s one wrinkle in their plan that can be seen coming back to bite them on the ass from space. Most of the film’s energy is saved for the final third where Braff can show how these old friends pulled off a Hell or High Water stick-‘em-up plot in an Ocean’s Eleven style. Braff doesn’t seem checked out as a director, but he doesn’t seem engaged beyond getting obvious delight out of watching his cast do their jobs quite wonderfully.
The script and obviously judicious amounts of editing don’t do Braff any favours, either. Each of the three characters can be summed up in a single sentence. The people these men care for can be summed up in single words. There’s no explanation as to the past lives of Joe and Willie or how they ended up with adult kids. If they were divorced or they suffered a tragedy at some point, we’ll never know because the kids are only there as manipulative fodder. I also get the sense that Melfi doesn’t have a clue how banks, mortgages, or employment law work because there are literally dozens of ways Joe could solve his problems without robbing a bank. Braff compensates wisely, by making things as snappy, fast paced, and breezy as possible. That approach robs the film of any sense of personality, but it actually saves the film and the audience from dwelling on things that might not have been well explained to begin with. At any rate, someone was either lazy or screwed up the execution of the idea here.
Indeed, the only things worth watching here are the performances. Maybe not Josh Pais as the painfully over the top bank manager (in seriously what I think is the worst performance I’ve seen so far this year), but everyone else looks like they’re having a blast. Caine, Freeman, and Arkin could have phoned this one in and no one would have begrudged them, but they’re clearly energized being around each other. The chemistry they share feels like watching a real group of friends. Caine brings just enough gravitas to his character that I genuinely cared about things turning out okay for him, despite never believing what was happening for a second. Freeman gives his loosest and giddiest comic performance in years, and Arkin just does the kind of cantankerous old man thing that he has been doing so well for years. Add to that nice supporting turns from Christopher Lloyd as a senile weirdo and Matt Dillon as a flummoxed detective, and you have a cast of characters that turn out better than they’ve been written and framed.
But in the end, Going in Style is still just another low aiming film designed to give the fifty and over crowd chuckles so light that they won’t need to reset their pacemakers. There are jokes about the price of coffee, how legion home meals taste awful, and the uncomfortable design of modern chairs. They aren’t that funny, but everyone here is doing their best to try and make something out of it. It’s not an irredeemable film, but it’s definitely a wonky and unnecessary one. The idea of only having one life to life and living it to its fullest is admirable, but it’s also a sentiment contained of hundreds of other films better than Going in Style.