Review: De Niro and Douglas ground the obvious ‘Last Vegas’ amidst some solid laughs

“It’s pretty much exactly what you think it is.”

Go ahead and put that on the poster, CBS Films. If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie and it looks like something you might enjoy, I think it’s a safe bet that you will enjoy it. “Last Vegas” is told with enough charm and energy that it should please audiences heartily. The cast, including Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, and Mary Steenburgen, makes it all seem very simple and natural and loose, and Jon Turtletaub keeps the focus on the people, not the high-concept idea of old guys on the loose in Las Vegas with a bunch of boner pills. This is much closer to the comic identity of “Cocoon” than it is to “The Hangover,” and that seems to be the point.

The script by Dan Fogelman, who also wrote last year’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” is in the same vein as that film, nakedly sentimental but also determined to land every joke, and it’s a pretty simple affair. Billy (Douglas), Paddy (De Niro), Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline) have been friends since they were kids in Flatbush, and over the years, they’ve always stayed in touch.

They’ve always been there for each other during every significant milestone and now, after everyone else has had a full family life, Billy is finally getting married. He appears to be, by far, the most successful of the guys, which explains Lisa (Bre Blair), his 32-year-old wife-to-be. He tells his friends about the news and invites them to fly to Vegas for the wedding immediately, and Archie and Sam are immediately onboard. The stumbling block is Paddy, and there’s obviously some unresolved issue between him and Paddy that is one of the primary engines of the film. Will all four of them be friends again by the time Billy walks down the aisle?

Archie and Sam finally manage to get Paddy to Vegas, but there are plenty of other complications ahead including Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a lounge singer who they are all immediately drawn to, and the film benefits enormously from her casting. First and foremost, Steenburgen’s just plain appealing in the film. She’s got great pipes, and when she sings, she is as fetching now as she’s ever been. She is also an age-appropriate romantic sparring partner for the other leads, and that’s just plain nice to see. She serves as a sounding board for all of them at some point, and it’s clear early on that both Paddy and Billy are interested in her.

The film gives each of the guys something to deal with during their weekend, but it doesn’t overplay the various arcs. Archie is dealing with the fallout of a stroke, and part of that involves suddenly being treated like he’s infirm by his adult son. Sam and his wife (Joanna Gleeson) retired to Florida, and he’s miserable. He feels like he surrendered, like he became officially old, and so she sends him on the trip with a condom, a Viagra, and permission to find some sort of passion again. That’s plenty for either of them to do, and for the most part, Freeman and Kline get to play the jokes. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Freeman play drunk before, and he does it beautifully. Kline has always had insane comic timing, and he manages to spin gold out of some fairly standard material.

Douglas and De Niro have the real heavy lifting of the film to do, and I like the particular variation that De Niro plays on his onscreen persona here. He’s the dour one, the guy who is constantly stewing in his own anger. He and Douglas don’t really play any jokes, instead grounding the film in something akin to reality. It’s interesting seeing Douglas play a variation on his characters from 20 years ago, the fuck-lizard of “Disclosure” and “Fatal Attraction” on the far side of 60 now, unable to truly be that guy anymore. The chemistry between the two isn’t legendary, and it doesn’t make me immediately want ten more films with the two of them, but it seems like they find a nice groove and some honest beats to play.

While I like Romany Malco, he’s saddled with a thankless role here, and it feels like one of the problems is that they felt the need to shoehorn in a few younger characters instead of just focusing on honestly writing the ones that make sense. Malco plays Lonnie, an employee of the Aria Hotel and Casino who works as a VIP valet for high rollers. Once one of the guys hits a hot streak at the tables, they get upgraded to a luxury suite and Lonnie becomes their wingman. Unfortunately, they lose him for big chunks of the film for no apparent reason, instead focusing more attention on Dean (Jerry Ferrara), a jerk of a kid who ends up hanging with the guys for the full weekend. The Dean storyline doesn’t work at all, and every minute they spend on him is wasted since it doesn’t really pay off in any meaningful way. When you’ve got strong character dynamics that you can play with, why waste a big chunk of screentime on something that doesn’t serve the story at all?

The movie keeps things light even during its biggest dramatic moments, and it doesn’t seem terribly concerned with trying to be anything but a comedy. A gentle one, sure, but a comedy. And even the “old guys being cool” stuff is kept pretty mild overall. Technically, the film looks fine and it makes solid use of Vegas as a location, but it falls into that trap of turning into a bit of an informercial for the particular venue that allowed them to film there. I stayed at the Aria two weeks ago when I went to Vegas to do press for the film, and they do a decent job of showing off the venue, but it also means they can’t do a single joke at the expense of Vegas or its excess. The end result is a film that feels very safe, which may be exactly what its target audience wants.

“Last Vegas” isn’t going to challenge anyone, but it delivers a low-key, enjoyable experience that is driven largely by the movie star charisma on display.

“Last Vegas” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.