There’s really no difference between this film and, say, “Wild Hogs” when you look at them on paper. Three friends shake off complacency by doing something totally unlike them, and they get in trouble, face some danger, and learn valuable life lessons. That description would generally describe a whole ton of movies, but it’s the details, the flavor, the rhythms of the films… that’s what defines which take on that basic formula works best. And I’d argue that there are few finer variations on the form than this heartfelt, small-scale miracle starring three actors in their twilight years, but burning at full wattage.
George Burns came roaring to life at the box-office in the ’70s, and Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him when it happened. First there was “The Sunshine Boys,” which made huge bank and won Burns his Oscar. Then there was “Oh God,” which was another giant cultural hit. And when “Going In Style” came out in 1979, it should have been the perfect triumphant third hit in a row. But… it wasn’t. It wasn’t a disaster or anything, but it wasn’t really a hit. It was only later when the film went into a sort of perpetual half-life cable rotation that I met other people who really appreciated it. Here’s where I learned that I love Art Carney. I didn’t watch “The Honeymooners” as a kid. I knew of it, of course, mainly through references in cartoons or on clips shows about television history, but it wasn’t a show I actively watched. It just didn’t have any appeal for me. So for me… Carney started here. This was the movie where I just totally fell for him, where I realized how much I love his particular comic sensibility. And Lee Strasberg is perfection as the mild-mannered third wheel in this group of friends, gentle and wide-eyed and always reacting even when it’s not his moment. Strasberg was a famous acting teacher, and here’s a case of a guy who absolutely could practice what he preached. His work is beautiful, simple, honest.
It’s a sitcom premise, basically. It’s very high concept. And yet, in its execution, it seemed to promise that Martin Brest was a filmmaker of wit and sensitivity.
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Joe (Burns), Al (Carney), and Willie (Strasberg) are roommates, forced to share a small apartment that they pay for with their meager Social Security checks. They spend their days trying to stay as inert as possible, in a local park, watching the same kids play every day. For all intents and purposes, they are already dead, hollowed out by the monotony of it all, and one day, Joe can’t take it anymore. He just can’t face another day of nothing. He gets an idea, and he pitches it to his two friends, in a way that leaves no question: this is what they’re doing. This is what they need. Joe wants to rob a bank, and his reasoning is simple. If they’re caught, they’ll get three years in jail. And at the end of that, each of them would have 36 Social Security checks waiting for them. That would give them something to look forward to, and free room and board in the meantime. And if they get away with it, then they can do anything they want. It’s a reason to get out of bed, a reason to focus, and all three of the men respond. Brest really loves these three actors, and he spends as much of the movie as possible just watching them share space, watching them react to one another. He loves the small interplay between Carney and Strasberg. Carney’s about a foot taller and about about 60 pounds heavier, and he’s outgoing and silly while Strasberg is reserved, sly. It’s a lovely pairing, and I could watch them do anything together. But the bank robbery really brings out the best in all of them. Burns plays Joe as this laser-focused operator, a guy who can get anything done once he puts his mind to it. Carney is so pleased to be with his friends, to be active, that he loses himself in the simple pleasures. I love the scene where he dances while some street musicians play, or the moment where he flirts with a hooker, unaware of her job. The entire sequence with him and Joe in Vegas is amazing, and Carney knows how to milk every bit of comic potential out of a moment and never once tipping it as a joke. He plays everything real. It’s all about character.
One of the reasons I would consider this an essential film… and that’s what this list is all about, keep in mind… is because Brest makes it look simple, and I think it’s important to remind filmmakers that sometimes, trying too hard can kill every bit of joy in your film. You have to keep it simple. Let the characters breathe. Let them exist. And you have to value performers as long as they’ve got something left to give. Burns, Carney, and Strasberg weren’t considered movie stars, even after Burns had a string of hits, but these performances could only be given by people with a certain weight of life experience. There’s a moment where Strasberg talks about his oldest son that is just shattering, and it’s underplayed, kept on a very simple scale, and that’s what makes it such a gut-punch. Because Brest doesn’t oversell the comedy… because he doesn’t try to crank everything up to a fever pitch… he’s able to make the emotional beats feel of a piece, earned. It’s not a jarring shift into sentiment, as it is so often with comedies, but instead feels more like simply all the rough edges of the human experience playing out.
When people talk about the ’70s and how good even routine movies were in that era, this is the sort of film they’re talking about. It’s not a monumental classic, and it’s not aiming for High Art. It’s just a sweet, well-observed comedy about finding some sort of value or thrill in your final years.
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