For my first film celebrating Black History Month, I saw a movie about Al Pacino getting quite old. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single Black person in the movie, actually. But it’s L.A., they don’t have many Black people there, it’s mostly Italians, Koreans, and Poles. But you know what, there was an annoyingly talkative person in the audience (at whom I raged internally), so it wasn’t like the experience was wholly without homage (though he was ethnically pale himself). Oh, and the guy who took my ticket was black. So, all in all not exactly what Martin Luther King had envisioned. It’s just as well, this would only have brought shame upon the tribe.
You’ve seen the trailer for Stand Up Guys (2013). Val (Al Pacino) is fresh out of prison and Claphands (Mark Margolis) has set Val’s best bud Doc (Christopher Walken) to kill him by 10am the next day. What you don’t know from the trailer is that Doc paints. Anyway, off they go on a whirlwind night of excitement showing they aren’t that old after all. Except they are and they show it. They go to a brothel and Val has some performance issues, so they break into a pharmacy to redress the matter (and also steal Doc’s more expensive prescriptions). Later they pick up Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a nursing home and the trio do their thing. All the while, Val knows Doc has to kill him and Doc is quite conflicted about it. How will it end? You can probably guess.
This kind of thing happens pretty frequently. Let’s put together three great actors with a great history and then…get them to shoot things? A few things happen next. The actors, based on years in the business, decide that the script is a good start and it’d be fun to work with friends they hadn’t worked with before. Then the script doesn’t get fixed. The actors see this and phone in their performances. Then the movie kind of sucks and people wonder what the actors were thinking. That’s conjecture, but the only alternative is that everyone just thought they were cashing in which does little to commend them.
Fisher Stevens directs the film without serious technical error (or flourish). The pace, however, is uneven and the music underutilized. Noah Haidle‘s script is occasionally quite funny, but is found lacking when it comes to plotting. Motives are quick to emerge and slow to develop. That’s not the only thing slow to develop. The story comes to mind. Not the actual story, obviously, because that could be summarized in a sentence and giving it seven was something of an exaggeration.
Events don’t lead to other events or conflicts, they simply fill the time between Val’s release and 10am the next day. The characters aren’t exactly gold-standard either. Doc is probably the best with Hirsch as a likely second and Val a distant third–not the correct distribution. And the comedy was, I fear, rather juvenile at times. I don’t mind the Cialis stuff. In fact, it was rather well done. But two girls fawning over Hirsch when he fulfills his lifelong fantasy with them was embarrassing coming from a movie you don’t want described as “wacky.” It’s like everyone felt a little nervous dealing with the “sad stuff” and just jogged through it.
As for the actors themselves, you can probably tell from my description above. The emotional depth was about as well performed by their wrinkles as anything–better, probably. Walken’s characteristic blank stare and deliberate stammer were there as usual. Pacino also put in his stop-go line recital method on display. Arkin certainly gave it the college try, but let’s just say Val’s not the only character working against a deadline.
I don’t usually do this, but it’s essential to my ultimate displeasure with the movie. Why have Hirsch die (of natural causes)? You’ve got the “Stand Up Guys” with all three pictured in the poster and you knock one of the better characters off for almost no reason at all. It just exemplifies the fact that the characters are going nowhere and they don’t even get there very quickly.
They had a strong core here but they don’t go towards a darker realism or towards a lighter comic universe and, instead, cut through the middle and ruin both. It’s possible you can have a perfectly balanced movie, drama/action to comedy, but more typically you’ve got the drama to have the movie serve some kind of purpose or comedy to take the foot off the emotional pedal. And what’s more, the balance needs to be balanced in kind as well as quantity. The wacky and the deathly serious can only go together when the wacky is surreal and strikes the characters as such. Otherwise, the characters aren’t real enough to handle the dramatic substance.