While I was watching Fisher Stevens’ Stand Up Guys I found that some of the film — especially the early scenes — had a strangely forced feeling. The scene where Doc (Christopher Walken) first takes freshly-released-from-prison Val (Al Pacino) to his crummy little apartment struck me as particularly awkward. Now, part of that is ultimately explained by the plot — Doc, it turns out, has been given orders to kill Val, and Val suspects that’s the case — but something about it still feels stilted to me. (Maybe a second viewing would change this.) But as the film went about its business, I gave in to its decidedly offbeat, but strangely non-quirky vibe. (That I saw Movie 43 a couple hours later may have had some influence, but not all that much.)
I like the fact that Stand Up Guys never pretends to be much more than a showcase for its three stars (Alan Arkin joins Pacino and Walken later), and — whether it’s budget or for deliberate effect — I like the odd feeling given to the film by its complete lack of nonessential characters. We see no one in the entire film who isn’t somehow functional and much of the action takes place in a city that appears mostly deserted and devoid of much in the way of law enforcement. Realistic? Not at all. But it gives the movie an unusual tone that keeps the focus exactly where it belongs. In the world established by the film, I can easily accept casual, undetected break-ins; walking out of a nursing home with a patient in tow; and even the prospect of burying someone in a public cemetery at night without arousing the caretaker. In a less stylized film, I’d be saying, “Really?” a lot. Whether this stems from director Fisher Stevens (who I know only as an actor, and mostly know from his “Oh, my goodness gosh” comedic Indian schtick in the Short Circuit movies) or from playwright-turned-screenwriter Noah Haidle, I don’t know. Haidle, however, clearly writes dialogue in a theatrical style and perhaps thinks in deliberately artificial terms.
Apart from the tension of when, where or if Doc is going to whack Val, the film mostly consists of the three over-the-hill gangsters (Arkin being the third) having one last hurrah, no matter how tired they might be. Some of this is poignant, one part is surprisingly violent, but mostly it’s played for comedy of a slightly wistful and quietly amusing kind. There are a lot of expected jokes about aging — yes, including a Viagra gag (better than most of its kind) — and nothing here can be said to be groundbreaking, but everything is handled by performers who know how to make the most out of the material, and they very much do. (And Pacino’s good roles have been pretty scarce for a long time, though Arkin and Walken have fared pretty well.) There are certainly far worse ways to spend your moviegoing time than watching three old pros do what they do best. Rated R for language, sexual content, violence and brief drug use.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14