Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Cinema File #137: "Stand Up Guys" Review

Anymore, when I see Al Pachino in a movie, I begin to worry. I hate that that is my first reaction to the presence of an actor who has turned in so many phenomenal performances over the years, and truth be told, looking back on his filmography I don't see nearly as many bad ones in the bunch than I remember. I don't know where his bad reputation comes from for me (okay, that's a lie, it's Jack and Jill), but I wonder if the extent to which he is now seen as something of a ham stems from just how passionate he is, for better or worse, whenever he commits to a role. Pachino goes big, whether he should or not, and while it has backfired in the past, thankfully his latest bombastic character is a delight from beginning to end in Stand Up Guys.

The story follows Pachino as an ex-con released from prison after 26 years for a robbery, a crime for which he took the fall so his friends could stay free. His best friend, played by Christopher Walken, meets him on his first day out and tries to make this the best night of their lives, understanding that it may be their last. Despite the ominous bit at the end there, Stand Up Guys is a fairly lighthearted buddy comedy, always employing crime movie tropes only to downplay or subvert them for laughs. It is mostly successful, starting off a bit slow, but it picks up about twenty minutes or so in and never lets up once it gets going.

Naturally, this is a movie that sinks or soars on the strength of its leading men, and you couldn't have found two better personalities to inhabit these two old crooks. Pachino almost instantly makes you forget whatever movie you might be holding against him (okay, it's still Jack and Jill), and Walken is both stoically funny and tragic as a man with few highlights in his life, trying to recapture the past even as he knows he's about to lose someone he cares about. And just when you think the cast couldn't get any better, Alan Arkin shows up as the third member of their gang, adding to the nostalgic energy of the film in an all too quick supporting role that is as delightful as anything you've ever seen him in. I can't help but think back on the last Christopher Walken movie I saw, Seven Psychopaths, and how that movie tried so hard to create interesting characters and tweak crime movie cliches, and that for all its wit and sophistication, it felt so hollow because it lacked the one thing this film has in spades: heart.

The movie is almost manipulative in how heartwarming and crowd pleasing it is. The script feels like a very deliberate attempt to stack moments on top of moments meant to elicit cheers and the pumping of fists, which I might have bristled at had it not been done so effortlessly. The whole movie is set up with the promise that as fun as everything is from scene to scene, eventually there will come a time where the fun has to stop, and yet just when you've prepared yourself for things to get depressing, a last minute wrench is thrown into the works that sends the movie off into a crazy place that in retrospect I wouldn't have had any other way. It all ends with a bang, complete with a They Live reference of all things, and comes together better than its mad cap and sometimes directionless story would have suggested.

Stand Up Guys probably isn't going to be heralded as a classic for years to come, as I suspect it will be overshadowed by the past work of its stars. Its good, but not as good as (fill in the blank with a Pachino or Walken film you like better). I'm sure many will dismiss it as just another little movie designed for great actors to slum it awhile and indulge in some slight self parody. Personally, whatever its legacy in the years to come, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and its easy and accessible enough that I can't really think of anyone who wouldn't. Definitely check this one out.

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