Review: Pacino and Walken are helpless against the inertia of ‘Stand Up Guys’

Boy, I’m tired of “Tax Shelter Theater.”

I know the landscape has changed in the last decade for independent financing, and I know it continues to change.  It is a scary time to be making movies, if only because so many things seem to be evolving as we speak, and one of the things that feels most like a holdover from the ’80s and ’90s is this certain kind of low-budget picture that exists as part of a deal with a distributor, a pipeline of garbage that somehow lands big-name actors while rarely, if ever, cranking out anything worth watching.  There are certain producers who show up on movies and as soon as I see their name, I automatically assume I’m about to see an indifferent piece of junk, and certain company names that set off the same warning bells.  What gets me most about these movies is that they don’t have to be so bad.  It’s financing that exists simply to service a deal, so why couldn’t that money be used to attach those same big names to genuinely worthwhile and adventurous fare?  You can’t tell me that a movie as generic and paint-by-numbers as “Stand Up Guys” is the best that can be done with these resources.  You just can’t.

Fisher Stevens, probably best known for either his role as the wacky Indian guy in the “Short Circuit” movies or as Michelle Pfeiffer’s most unlikely ex, is the director here, working from a script by Noah Haidle, and it’s a rough sit by any standards.  Al Pacino plays Valentine, a guy just getting out of prison after serving a long stretch.  He’s the guy who got popped, the guy who went down so everyone else could get away, and he did his time without flipping over on anyone and without complaining.  Now, 28 years after he went in, he’s out and his best friend Doc (Christopher Walken) picks him up and takes him out for a celebration.  Doc’s got orders, though, from Claphands (Mark Margolis), the crime boss who has been harboring a grudge for those full 28 years, and he’s been told he has to kill Valentine before 10:00 AM the next morning.  So Doc takes Val out for a long boozy wake, a night on the town before he goes, and along the way, they have adventures involving boner pills, Lucy Punch, a naked woman in a car trunk, and Hirsch (Alan Arkin), an old friend who they break out of a nursing home. 

And over the course of that night, you will not be surprised or see anything that resembles actual spontaneous human behavior even once.  The pleasure of watching Pacino and Walken and Arkin bounce off each other should be enough for any movie, but “Stand Up Guys” squanders it.  This is a drag from start to finish.

There are a lot of talented people struggling to make this thing come to life.  Julianna Marguiles shows up as Hirsch’s daughter, and the “E/R” fan in me was delighted when she showed up in nurse’s scrubs, but it’s a nothing role.  Same with Lucy Punch, doing a horrifying American accent as the madam of a whorehouse who took over for her mom.  Vanessa Ferlito, Bill Burr, Addison Timlin… they all try, and it’s not their fault, but it’s just so wildly phony.  For me, the moment where I went from bored to actively irritated was when Pacino basically recreates his “Scent Of A Woman” dance scene with a young woman at a bar, and it’s such a reach, such an artificial “movie moment,” that I just gave up.

Technically, it looks fine.  It’s not poorly made.  But as you watch seven different company names go by and see seven different listed producers, it feels like a lot of people were involved and yet no one asked at any point, “What is the point of telling this story, and who is going to want to watch this?”  The worst moment in the whole thing came at the very end, when the first credit dedicates the film to the memory of the late Bingham Ray.  Considering how much good he did for the indie film community and considering how actively he embodied the spirit of taking risks on art you believe in, making this soft-boiled mush a memorial to him feels downright disrespectful.

Don’t waste your time or your money.  I’m sure it’ll wash up on home video almost instantly, where it will be promptly and deservedly forgotten for good.

“Stand Up Guys” is in theaters now.  You’ve been warned.