Sometimes I take for granted the idea of earning moments. If a filmmaker wants you to feel something, he or she needs to make you feel it without taking shortcuts. It’s all about effort and honesty, because earning moments means that those moments don’t feel forced (or worse, manipulative) when they arrive. You’re too lost in the story to notice the machinery that got you there.
Watching Stand Up Guys made me realize why earning moments is so important. The movie shifts between high comedy and life-or-death drama multiple times. It wants you to ponder friendship, age, love, death, and loneliness while also making you laugh at a few boner jokes. This is a tricky balance.
The problem: nothing in Stand Up Guys is earned.
Stand Up Guys
Director: Fisher Stevens
Release Date: February 1, 2013
The movie starts promisingly enough. Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” plays over an opening credits montage of Val (Al Pacino) getting out of jail while his buddy Doc (Christopher Walken) goes to pick him up. It’s a reunion between two old partners in crime. Val took the wrap for a botched job 28 years ago because he refused to snitch and bring his friends down with him. Now that Val’s out, he wants to go out on the town and get into trouble. But Doc’s been hired to put a hit on Val by their old boss (the always cool and often underused Sol Robeson). The hit has to happen before tomorrow morning or else. Old-people hijinks ensue, and then fall flat pretty quick.
It’s not a novel set-up, but it’s material with potential if you have good actors and a good script. Stand Up Guys is severely lacking in the latter. The screenplay is from first-time writer Noah Haidle, and it’s chock full of obvious jokes (e.g., the requisite Viagra gag) and dumb cliches you’ve seen dozens of times in other forgettable movies. There are the “old men act like young men” cliches: old men screw, old men flirt, old men do drugs, old men drive really fast, old men get violent. There are the “old men are old men” cliches: old men complain about being old, old men complain about new technology, old men complain about nursing homes, old men reminisce about the olden days. There are the “criminals with hearts of gold” cliches: they steal, they fight, they flee from cops, they do horrible things, but hey, they’re all right fellas in the end, amiright? And because Stand Up Guys wants you to feel, there are the “old men are dying” cliches: old men talk about regrets, old men talk about bucket lists, old men deliver speeches full of blunt truths gleaned from experience, young people get teary-eyed because old men are acting old and are going to die.
No matter how good the actors are, they can only do so much with bad material, and the stuff of Stand Up Guys is pure dreck. Alan Arkin, who plays Hirsch the Third Oldketeer, is underwritten and underdeveloped. He mostly drones his lines like he’s annoyed and doesn’t want to be there. There are a few places where director Fisher Stevens seems to let Walken and Pacino improvise, and the results are like lackluster first takes. When Val arrives in Doc’s apartment, there’s inane back and forth about the decor; over coffee before their long night, more inane banter. It’s not the slice-of-life small talk that illuminates characters or allows the audience to inhabit the reality of the moment, it’s just two actors filling time.
Stand Up Guys seems to implicitly say, “Hey, this movie has Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin in it — isn’t that enough for you?” From beginning to end, the film coasts on your knowledge of each actor’s past roles and reputations. It’s such a blatant shortcut to earning moments, and it rarely works. In some ways, Pacino, Walken, and Arkin are basically playing caricatures themselves. Pacino does a Pacino impression with growls and histrionics, Walken does Walken with pauses and strange alien inflection, and Arkin does Arkin by droning his lines and being annoyed. They’re not acting so much as using their presence to try to elevate material that cannot be elevated.
How cynical does Stand Up Guys get with this? The answer comes less than half an hour in. Val and Doc head to a bar/club where the young people go. Val hits on three women crassly, not in an adorable dirty-old-man kind of way but a rude-and-rapey sort of way. He gets rebuffed with a drink in his face, wipes off, regroups, and tries to hit on them again. On comes the absent charm. He asks one of the young ladies to dance. For some reason she says yes, and what follows is a dance sequence lifted straight out of Scent of a Woman. Everyone in the club is surprised, charmed, turned on, impressed; meanwhile, I scowled at the gall on screen. In Scent of a Woman, the dance seemed charming and unexpected, but in Stand Up Guys it’s cheap and transparent. It also has no repercussions in the scene directly afterwards. It’s just there to remind us of Pacino as Pacino. And no, it’s not enough.
This is like a strange encapsulation of Pacino’s career lately. Despite some good work on TV (Angels in America, You Don’t Know Jack), Pacino’s spent the last decade in some wretched movies: Gigli, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, Jack and Jill. He shows up and does his Pacino thing in material that’s beneath him, as if his presence is enough: this is funny because it’s Pacino doing it, this is dramatic because it’s Pacino doing it, you should take this seriously because, look, it’s Al freakin’ Pacino. But again, the material isn’t there, and actors can’t earn moments on their own. Pacino can say the words, but as good as he might say them, the words he’s saying here are practically meaningless.
Most of Stand Up Guys is meaningless because none of the actions have consequences. It goes from little things like the Scent of a Woman rip-off scene to the big things like Doc’s hit job dilemma. There’s nothing at stake for any of the characters, or if there is, it’s never expressed in a tangible way that made me care. Why does Doc care if Val dies? Why does Hirsch feel like getting out and about? No one has anything to gain or to lose. We’re supposed to feel like these decisions have consequences because we know the cliches and we know the actors, but earning the moment means that the writing makes you feel what’s in the story, not the stuff outside of the story.
Towards the end of Stand Up Guys, the stakes are raised for one of the characters following a painfully contrived plot twist. Had I not lost my goodwill for the movie in the first half hour, I might have felt something at this point (assuming I wouldn’t have been baffled by the silliness of the plot twist). Finally there’s a sense of what could be lost if a certain character doesn’t act decisively. This could have been the moment the film hinged on, and it could have salvaged something resembling meaning in a movie that’s devoid of it.
After building that flimsy bit of consequence, the film ends on a note that totally undermines the stakes. It’s a reckless ending for characters who know how much there is to lose, especially since they were so cautious and worried a few scenes before. It’s as if the characters and the screenwriter said, “Ah, screw it,” because they were missing a cliche for the finale and needed to get it in there somehow.
It just shows that Stand Up Guys wants to have it both ways without earning or committing to either: it wants to be a flippant last-night-out movie with old people and also wants to be a heartfelt drama about life and death. It winds up being a 90-minute trifle where everything is irrelevant, made worse by an ambiguous ending. To end on ellipses makes a movie meaningless unless the movie was so rife with consequence to begin with that the ellipses are a kind of relief. Here the ambiguity is a total cop out. The characters are still free from any repercussions for their actions, and the filmmakers get out of actually telling the damn story.
During one of the many unearned scenes in Stand Up Guys, Pacino delivers a monologue on the nature of life and death. It’s obviously Pacino’s award clip. This is an intimate moment, and we’re supposed to feel something because one character is shedding tears. It’s hard to feel anything since the moment has no consequence, but whatever. Pacino recites the monologue diligently, modulating between gravitas and apathy — been there, done that, I’m checking out, I’m okay with that, I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot. He’s wistful, he’s witty, there’s calculated range on display.
Cavalier, self-assured, Pacino doesn’t even finish his thought in an emotional flourish. Instead, he ends with a dismissive trail off. More ellipses. Part of it may be the character’s reticence to get emotional, or part of it may be the character no longer giving a toss about what’s going on.
“That was good,” Walken’s character says at the end of the monologue. But this is less like Doc patting Val on the shoulder and more like the movie patting itself on the back; as if Haidle or Stevens is insisting, “Hey guys, it’s Al Pacino who just said that — it’s gotta be good.”
Whatever you say, Doc. I don’t freakin’ buy it. I watched him play the notes, but there’s no melody — the song has no heart.