For a film called Stand Up Guys, it is a wonder to me that this film was able to remain vertical for as long as it did. Not only did it fall flat in every single area where it should have situated itself more firmly but the increasingly uneven narrative caused so much confusion and frustration that any attachment to the already transparent characters was essentially impossible.
It seems like after Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys it became quite fashionable to do films about retirees getting “back into the game.” Stand Up Guys is no different except that the material is not as good. Perhaps the secret is that it can’t be a comedy and that there has to be some dramatic side? In any case, Val (Al Pacino) is just getting out of prison after serving 28 years. His best friend Doc (Christopher Walken) is there to pick him up. It is revealed that a) while Val was in jail, he never ratted on any of the other people who were involved in the case and b) Doc is not just there to pick him up, he is there to kill him as a result of the case that Val went in for. Val accidentally shot a Mafioso’s only son. The remainder of the film involves Doc’s struggle with this “responsibility,” various trips to a whorehouse, a reunion with the third member of their gang, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), and assorted gun-and-violence-related examples that these AARP-card eligible ex-gangsters have still “got it.”
I had some hope for the picture: Stand Up Guys started off quite well, working on the audience’s eyes and ears, with some killer 70s music and some pretty beautiful cinematography by Michael Grady, also responsible for 2003’s Wonderland. It even moved forward with a few decent laughs and was able to honestly articulate the sense of discomfort and awkwardness between two friends who had not seen each other in a great deal of time. Pacino and Walken are great performers and their self-consciousness at losing their youth and “virility” in a culture that focuses on that was palpable. But it was another thing to have them face each other with that in mind. Their entire friendship and life together had been built upon a seamless unending byline of masculine triumph and violence. After not having seen each other in 28 years, a good amount of that had given way to “the twilight years” and prescription medications for cataracts in Doc’s case, while Val reveals that he had “gotten into gardening in the joint.”
The main problem is that the film seems like a depiction of former mafia men with severe cases of OCD. The film was going in one direction, Val and Doc were out cruising the streets of Hollywood, doing what Val wanted to do the first night he got out of jail (although we, as the audience, know it was also supposed to be his last night on earth). However, after a sequence of events that basically obeys story logic, Val exits stage left and takes the film with him. A fancy car is stolen, with little to no protest from Doc, the man who has “given the life up.” Val says to Doc, “Let’s go.” Doc asks where. Val says, “You know where.” But… the film acts as if we, the audience, should also know where. Well, of course! How silly of me. They are going to grab their third pal, Hirsch. He hasn’t been in any of the rest of the film up until this point and really has nothing to do with the moral struggle that Doc is dealing with in regards to shooting and killing his gangster bestie.
What the introduction of Hirsch does is simply provide an excuse to return to the whorehouse (which they had been to twice already, although Lucy Punch is truly excellent in her role as second-generation cathouse mistress, Wendy), become fixtures at the restaurant they had been at earlier, and have a raging car chase and gun battle with the owners of the car they lifted “for purposes of justice.” While Alan Arkin is never bad, his character succeeds in pointing out the biggest problem in a movie that is, essentially, supposed to focus on male bonding and friendship.
This film could have explored the depths and beauty of masculine relationships but it remains at surface level. This is Stand Up Guys biggest failing. When Hirsch comes out of the whorehouse after completing one of his “life missions” of an ménage à trois, his pals ask him if he is happy and he replies “no.” He says that you can’t just expect him to stop mourning for his wife in an instant. Doc and Val look at Hirsch, confused. But then they simply move along. No acknowledgment. These are men who, according to the film, have been working, killing, partying together for 50+ years. Now either we are supposed to believe that they just really don’t care about each other’s feelings and that is the point, or it’s just poorly constructed and unclear, attempting to make up for it later. Either way, it doesn’t work.
From the clumsily borrowed and repeated “kick-ass/bubblegum” line to the disappointing way the film seems to try to fit far too many storylines and characters into a narrative that probably should simply have involved Val and Doc and their situation, Stand Up Guys is an unfortunate mess that has some great actors involved and fantastic music choices. Better luck next time, guys. Might want to sit down now.
Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.