The old adage, "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage" gets almost totally refuted in Stand Up Guys, the story of three elderly, low level toughs banding together for one last night on the mean streets. The thin script, by debuting screenwriter Noah Haidle feels like the first draft of an eventual off-Broadway play. But Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin infuse almost every line with so many elegiac flourishes and moments of earthy camaraderie that had the roles been played by any other trio, the script's flaws would have been fatal. To argue that such a one-time-only assemblage of acting icons should have resulted in a grander film is slightly unfair to the material. No matter its failings, this is built to be a minor work. So if one can live with under-realized characters and lazy, age-related gags, Stand Up Guys gets a pass as a low-key charmer. Lionsgate won't see much theatrical return on this one. Cable and streaming is where the film looks to make its biggest bang.
It's become axiomatic that Al Pacino will chew the scenery with a viciousness that belies his 72 years. So let us rejoice in his decision to shrink himself down to Donnie Brasco levels as Val, newly sprung from prison after serving 28 years instead of ratting out his criminal buddies. Collecting him upon release is his friend and former partner in crime, Doc (Walken). Understandably, Val wants to make up for three decades in the slammer with a night of booze, bennies and broads. Doc, who has retired from the game and is happy to paint and watch cable TV, reluctantly drags himself around their desolate, unnamed town to indulge his friend's wishes. Their night of debauchery (including three trips to the same brothel) holds little surprises. Yes, the sight of Doc breaking into a pharmacy and stealing the pills he needs to treat his old-man ailments is ticklishly melancholic. But when Val steals, and then overdoses on, Viagra, the little blue miracle has never felt like such a tired punch line. Indeed, Stand Up Guys never stops being a poor emulsification of broad laughs and soft moments of resignation and regret. Actor-turned-producer-turned director Fisher Stevens often miscalculates when deciding how fully to indulge the script's hammier passages. After their second trip to the brothel (run by British actress Lucy Punch), the pair visit an old-age home to reunite with Hirsch (Arkin), their former getaway driver. One moment, Hirsch is half-dead and hooked up to an oxygen tank, the next moment he's behind the wheel of a stolen Dodge Charger, evading police in a high speed chase.
Hanging over Stand Up Guys like a shroud is the sense that this might be Val's last night on earth. Once that possibility is revealed by a quietly anguished Doc, the question of whether Val will exit the film alive generates a fair amount of interest. When Doc looks at his old friend, he sees decades of hard fought adventures in the concrete jungle reduced to a few remaining hours of pathetically reenacting his days of youthful vigor. Walken's priceless speech rhythms and somber gazes are perfect instruments to convey such light pathos. Besides tending to Val, Doc has problems of his own. He's under incessant pressure from mob boss, Claphands (Mark Margolis, directed too broadly) and he's burdened by a long-held, difficult secret he keeps from the young waitress at the local diner (Addison Timlin).
The movie's clichéd elements and overly-comedic interludes might have worked had Stevens a better handle on melding disparate tones and Haidle had something more unique and character-rich on his mind. And yet all (okay, most) of the problems fall away when watching Pacino and Walken take what little they've been given and breathe life into it (for Arkin, this feels like a job taken solely to work with the other two). Their performances, and our interpretation of them, would not be possible without the baggage of all the similar performances that came before. None of this, of course, excuses a script that should have been reworked after the first table read. It does, however, make us appreciate the gift we've been given: three greats in the twilight of their careers, showing us how to take subpar material and sell it until we care.
Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin
Director: Fisher Stevens
Screenwriter: Noah Haidle
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Jim Tauber
Rating: R for language, sexual content, violence and drug use
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: February 1, 2013