GOING IN STYLE

Producer: Donald De Line
Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon, John Ortiz, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Kenan Thompson, Josh Pais, Maria Dizzia, Anthony Chisholm and Annabelle Chow
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

Despite the title, any sense of style is very much lacking in this loose remake of Martin Brest’s well-received, and surprisingly insightful, 1979 geriatric comedy about three old duffers (George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) who decide to rob a bank. Zach Braff’s direction is so blandly lackadaisical that it strands his three immensely likable leads—Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin—to fend pretty much for themselves. They’re all charming, of course, but they’re forced to coast on our long-standing affection for them.

That’s not, however, simply because of Braff’s blasé direction; screenwriter Ted Melfi must bear responsibility as well, for his slipshod refashioning of Brest’s original script—which had its share of laughs, but also touched incisively on the pains of aging. This adaptation attempts some topical explanation for the men’s decision to turn to crime—the pensions they depend on have been liquidated by a merger of their old factory with an international conglomerate—but it’s just an obvious nod to the residual public anger stemming from the economic collapse of 2008. Most of the running-time is devoted to the men’s slapsticky practicing for the heist under the tutelage of a dog-loving crook (John Ortiz), followed by a montage showing how they established their alibis and a feeble effort at suspense about whether a smug FBI agent (Matt Dillon) will prove their guilt.

In refashioning the story into what is little more than a sitcomish heist flick, Melfi and Braff have largely excised the underlying strain of serious reflection about what it means to grow old. True, they try to preserve something along those lines by adding a subplot about a potentially fatal condition for one of the trio, but—surprise!—after a few lachrymose scenes they resolve it with what amounts to a sappy show of friendship. To make matters worse, they then opt for a final twist that represents an even more offhanded dismissal of death. Dementia gets equally insensitive treatment in a supporting turn by Christopher Lloyd as a fellow suffering from obvious mental deterioration; and Lloyd’s bug-eyed performance does nothing to lessen the effect.

A comedy about older men could hardly omit a late-in-life sexual component these days, of course, and so one of the trio gets an unexpected chance of romance with an aggressive supermarket clerk. It seems peculiarly appropriate that she should be played by Ann-Margret, who has plenty of experience along these lines as a result of her turns in the “Grumpy Old Men” movies. The other two must make do with doting on their darling granddaughters, and when that doesn’t prove sufficient, other kids—as well as some adorable puppies—are added to the mix. Aww! The surgery that’s been done on “Going in Style” shows a degree of contempt for contemporary audiences, suggesting that they simply can’t deal with the sorts of genuine issues that those of thirty-plus years ago could accept in stride—yet more proof of the dumbing-down of mainstream American movies.

Still, there’s no denying that it’s sporadically amusing to watch Caine, Freeman and Arkin do their thing, however little is asked of them. But that’s not enough; one keeps imagining what they could have made of stronger, more challenging material—the sort that Burns, Carney and Strasberg were given. Ann-Margret is also poorly used, required to exhibit only her still-sultry side, and though Lloyd might not be capable of much more than his usual shtick, he seems to take it to new heights (or depths) here. Of the remaining supporting cast, Ortiz comes off best in a restrained turn, though Kenan Thompson adds some chuckles as an exasperated security guard. Dillon does his doofus detective routine adequately, especially when compared to poor Josh Pais, who’s forced to embarrass himself repeatedly as a smarmy bank manager. The technical side of the picture is competent: Rodney Charters’ cinematography is okay, though one wishes that editor Myron Kerstein had been able to instill a bit more energy into the proceedings. But he was just working with the footage he was given—mostly limp stuff, thanks to Melfi and Braff.

One has to feel especially sorry for Arkin. He plays the gruff, cantankerous part of the threesome well, but is hobbled by the fact that almost all of his supposedly amusing observations fall flat. More to the point, he now must know how Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks felt when they starred in the ill-advised 2003 remake of “The In-Laws.” Arkin had played brilliantly against an equally inspired Peter Falk in Arthur Hiller’s 1979 original, and Douglas and Brooks were deemed much inferior to their predecessors. Now Arkin is on the losing side of the comparison,

Come to think of it, 1979 was a pretty good year.