‘Going In Style’ Is Fine, But Our Aging Actors Deserve Better

A movie like Going In Style raises the question: How much credit should we give a cynical cash grab for being merely mediocre and not offensively so? It’s like tasting airplane food. Not good, exactly, but it might make you nostalgic for the days when every comedian made jokes about airplane food. Aw, remember when airplanes still had food?

Going In Style is both a remake of a 1979 Martin Brest film and a Zach Braff movie, neither of which you’d suspect while watching it. The Brest version, starring George Burns, Lee Strasberg, and Art Carney as three old guys from Queens who get their mojo back when they decide to rob a bank, is well regarded. This new version feels more like a generic anyflick cooked up with studio leftovers than an update on a classic. Would it matter if Nine Lives had technically been a remake? Probably not, it’d still look like Kevin Spacey voicing a cat.

In Going In Style 2017, starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, the twist is that the reason they’re robbing the bank is that banks are bad. (They stuck Michael Caine’s character with a bad refi and his mortgage tripled and he’s now in foreclosure…). Also the factory where the three fellas all worked for 30 or 40 years outsourced their pensions. Specifically, they moved operations to Vietnam (symbolism?) and used the pensions to pay off company creditors. That’s probably more summary than you need, because this is basically Tower Heist meets Last Vegas/Old Dogs/Bucket List/Stand Up Guys/Wild Hogs et. al. And rarely has a “blank meets blank” construction so thoroughly summed up an entire narrative.

Going In Style is probably better than those other films, so… congratulations, I guess? The title already sounds like a slogan for a prostate drug, and to its credit, the film makes only one prostate drug joke — about seven minutes in — and never goes back to the well. In a cinematic universe where we’ve seen both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro get their respective medically-induced boners syringe drained in separate films, I suppose that counts as progress. What a time to be alive.

Other than being indistinguishable from each other (I swear to God I had to use Google to remember that I’d seen the Al Pacino one), the reason I can’t stand this subgenre is that the films are just so patronizing. I love these actors, you love these actors, that’s why studios make these movies; but please, not like this.

Our favorite actors don’t have to stay young forever, but we look to Hollywood to invent new myths for them, to in some way reinvent the way we think of men of a certain age. The only cool thing about aging is that each generation gets to at least slightly redefine what it means to be of a certain age. Jeff Bridges doesn’t need to be The Dude forever, and when he shows up in Hell Or High Water, he’s not, and we like him just as much. We appreciate the individual. What these dopey movies do, by contrast, is to take singular actors like Morgan Freeman or Alan Arkin or Michael Caine and just sort of make fun of them for being old. I don’t want to watch Michael Caine playing every old guy — he’s lonely! he takes pills! he loves his grandkids! — I want to watch him do an older version of something uniquely Michael Caine. Turning him into a grey-haired sitcom prop is great for the sitcom but just kind of sad for Michael Caine.

I mean, if you want to watch a movie where Morgan Freeman attempts to stuff a ham down his pants and flees a supermarket robbery in the basket of a Rascal scooter, by all means, see Going In Style, you could do a lot worse. That doesn’t make it good.

In the new version, Caine’s character only comes up with his great bank robbery scheme after himself being in a bank during a robbery. Which leads to him deciding… to rob the exact same bank. Which also happens to be the bank handling their pensions. Why make it believable? We can save on money by combining sets and the audience doesn’t care anyway. “You wanted to see the old farts rob a bank, right? F*ck you.”

In order to rob this bank, they enlist the help of the closest thing any of them have to an underworld contact, to “teach them the ropes” (note: this is not a thing). This turns out to be a guy played by John Ortiz. John Ortiz is one of the most enjoyable actors you could ever have in this role, which doesn’t change the fact that he’s essentially playing Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist.

The film had ample opportunity to be more than a throwaway. It’s interesting that these old guys feel like they’re getting screwed by the system over their foreclosed houses and dissolved pensions, when for their children’s generation (and mine) the idea of even having a pension, or owning your own home in a nice part of Brooklyn, feels like a preposterous pipe dream (the film notes that Caine’s grown daughter lives with him while she goes to nursing school, but that’s all we get). They also enjoy community — three dudes that hang together, have their usual diner and favorite waitress, friends at the VFW hall, a whole social group — in a hundred ways the youngins don’t. It would be interesting for a film to explore that, and as a guy who still defends Garden State, Zach Braff doesn’t seem like the worst guy to do it.

But Braff seems to still be licking his wounds from Wish I Was Here, his rightly-panned wondercore nightmare featuring a magical jar of used contact lenses. Perhaps astutely, he seems to be using an easy genre movie as a way to rehabilitate his career without taking too many chances. (M. Night Shyamalan has revived his own career via a similar move.) In so doing, he’s proved that he’s still competent and can make a better version of a Brett Ratner movie without breaking a sweat. To paraphrase the late Edward R. Murrow, nice job and no thanks.