February 7, 2013

Will the Real Al Pacino Please Stand Up?

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To be 19 years old and writing a review about a last-hurrah work of a posse of 20th-century film greats feels more than a little sacrosanct. My father was seven years-old when the first Godfather was released; who am I to shed a tear over Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) reduced to campy Viagra-gone-wrong jokes? I hadn’t even heard tell of Alan Arkin until he faux-grandfathered Abigail Breslin, and I certainly haven’t earned the right to laugh patronizingly at Christopher Walken’s (grand)dad jokes — he was applauded for his role in Tarantino’s first writing project True Romance in the same year that I was born and his first Oscar win was 15 years previously. But this is where Stand Up Guys’ most successful punch comes from: Its nostalgia. For the largely past-middle-age audience that surrounded me in the theater, it was nostalgia for the grand era of movies that they had once experienced and now long for. For myself and the fellow Sun writer sitting next to me, it was nostalgia for a time that we got to see only in the aftermath, an era which had already become legend by the time we arrived on the movie-loving scene. These interior conflicts are what make the film so difficult to talk about. The premise is a surprisingly original one — retired gangster Doc (Walken) picks up old friend and partner Val (Pacino) after a 28-year prison sentence, but soon after they’re reunited, Val correctly guesses that Doc has been ordered by the crime boss Claphands (Mark Margolis) to kill him in recompense for a long-ago accidental heist-gone-wrong. Doc is determined to make a grand adventure out of Val’s last day, which includes springing their old buddy/get-away driver Hirsch (Arkin) from his nursing home. The most beautiful moments in this movie were like this one, when the film lingered on the potency of that particular sort of love story about life-long friendships, the notion of topping one’s “good old days,” and the dignity of grace under pressure. Pacino spinning a young woman around the dance floor at a bar to Sam & Dave’s “When Something is Wrong with My Baby” — perfect. But the film had almost as many bad moments, in which the actors seemed stripped of their dignity. Pacino following a Russian prostitute up the stairs at a brothel, only after he’s downed half a bottle of Viagra — depressing.Best known for his Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove, this is the first feature film by director Fisher Stevens. Partnering with first-time screenwriter Noah Haidle, the pair struggle with obvious pacing problems, frequent patches of trite dialogue, and many cheap-thrills á la Betty White’s look-at-old-people-doing-things-they-shouldn’t shtick. Pacino and then Arkin’s characters are laboriously befuddled by the automatic ignition on a stolen sports car and Arkin’s stupefied “This is like the future!” is just too pandering to handle.  The repeated joke of the film, told in tandem by Pacino and Walken, is cheesy too, but much more likable: “We have two choices: We can either chew gum or kick ass. And I’m all out of gum.” Walken delivers most of the film’s legitimate comedy — with the line: “These guys are animals. They’re the type to take out your kidneys and not even sell them” — as well as one of his best dramatic performances in years. His strongest moments are when the plot isn’t forced — when he’s monologuing, catching up with Arkin or establishing the oh-so-important relationship with friendly waitress Alex (Addison Timlin), as opposed to when he’s following Pacino around, pulling dour expressions while he watches his friend’s desperate antics. A surprising amount of back-up in the comedy department comes from supporting actress Lucy Punch (remember her from Ella Enchanted, not from Bad Teacher). As the daughter and successor of a fondly-remembered madam in the neighborhood brothel the boys frequented in their good old days, she somehow earns an entire backstory flush with character, empathy, warmth and respect, delivering only laughs that are righteously-earned and surprisingly-wholesomely delivered. Arkin isn’t in the film quite as much as one might wish, but the scenes he is in add a much-needed adrenaline shot to a plot that is mostly dragged through its first 30 minutes. Pacino’s performance is spotty at best, a travesty that weighs the movie way down. Val has none of the power of Michael Corleone, little of the real spunk of Frank Slade and all of the sloppy late-career disregard he displayed in his decision to appear in Adam Sandler’s abysmal Jack and Jill. The only glimpse of the powerhouse Pacino is during an exquisite monologue towards the end of the movie in which he tamps down the crassness long enough to note, “They say we die twice. Once when the breath leaves our body, and once when the last person we know says our name,” and to then deliver the question to Walken, “You gonna say my eulogy?” He frames the whole movie as an interpretation of life in which a person’s only task is to be good to their friends and to recall them fondly if they outlive them — to be “a fuckin’ stand-up guy.”The soundtrack will signal to the audience to remember a better time for the crime genre and give a hint of setting (it’s no particular city, but could it be Chicago?), following Baby Huey, Elvin Bishop and Muddy Waters deep into the era of The Sting and The Godfather, Mean Streets and Thieves Like Us. The prevailing antics of the movie’s stars are more reminiscent of another late (partially) and great (completely) crime duo who didn’t quite know what type of movie they were making — they were on a “mission from God” as certainly as Pacino and Walken were “all out of gum.” A movie that’s not sure how serious it is, the sentiments of this film could hail from Harold & Maude just as easily as they could Ferris Bueller. Then  again, they wouldn’t be unfamiliar to the guys of Goodfellas either. Thus, despite its failings, Stand Up Guys is largely a tribute. A tribute to buddy movies, to crime movies, to the golden era of 70’s film, to the careers of three Hollywood legends, to comedy and to heart, to jokes that are overused but can sometimes still be funny, to clichés that are cliché for a reason. As Arkin decides in a lilting and skimmed-over revelation, this isn’t the good old days: “It’s better. Because this time we can appreciate it.”

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany