The original Going in Style, released in 1979, is a mini-masterpiece. Writer/director Martin Brest (who went on to direct Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman), adapting a short story by Edward Cannon, tells the story of three old men — beautifully played by George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg — running out the clock in Queens. One day, basically out of nowhere, one of them gets an idea: why not do a stick-up? It’d break the monotony. Although it was marketed as a high-concept comedy, a genre that’d characterize the decade to follow, Going in Style‘s adventure is told in a muted style very much of its ‘70s making. Zach Braff’s new remake, on the other hand, is only a high-concept comedy, with none of the nuance or tonal unpredictability that made the original so special. You probably have to have seen both films to find the new one as infuriating as I did, but even if you haven’t, there’s no question that it’s terrible.
The screenwriter is inexplicably Oscar-nominated Theodore “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color” Melfi, and the trouble is signaled just by perusing the credits; Brest’s script isn’t even acknowledged as a source, only the original Cannon story. But that’s accurate, as the scripts couldn’t be further apart. The original film was low-key and modest; the new film is loud and frantic. Part of the charm of the original was how tossed-off the bank robbery is — the trio really only do it out of boredom, it happens less than halfway into the movie, and then they go back to their park bench. The robbery takes up the entire running time of the remake, and clearly “robbing a bank because you’re old and bored” will not do for a studio movie circa 2017, when “we need motivation for our sympathetic protagonists” is a note every numbskull executive can conjure up. So there is endless motivation: all three are losing their pensions, thanks to their former employer moving their old plant overseas; Joe (Michael Caine) is about to lose his house, after a shady mortgage refinancing deal (cue the half-assed dash of post-economic meltdown populist sloganeering), which is not only his home but that of his single-mom daughter and granddaughter; Willie (Morgan Freeman) is on dialysis and needs a kidney transplant. And, the aging robbers insist, they’ll only take what’s owed them from their pension, donating the rest to charity, because that’s how afraid mainstream movies are of casual criminality.
So rather than an update of Brest’s exquisite character-driven comedy/drama, we get a cross between Horrible Bosses (down to the inclusion of a Motherfucker Jones character to show them the ropes) and Grumpy Old Men (including Ann-Margret as the Sexy Old Lady Life Force). That’s Warner Brothers’ prerogative — those two properties were fare more profitable than Going in Style, I’m sure — but the tilt towards pure comedy would play stronger if the picture were actually funny. It is, to put it mildly, not funny. Never is this more apparent than in the scene in which Joe decides they need to “walk before they run” by doing some supermarket shoplifting, which leads to mugging in the store, a slapstick chase in a motorized cart, and even an appearance by that most desperate of comic devices, a foul-mouthed little old lady. It’s all pretty sad, and that’s before they get to the “old dudes smoking weed” scene. (Christopher Lloyd also pops up, overplaying wildly, but at least he’s fun to watch.)
What’s particularly depressing is that all of this could’ve worked. Braff’s not a bad director, though his busy-bee shooting and cutting is never more than a distraction; it’s almost as if he were afraid his audience would get bored, spending 97 minutes looking at old people, so he has to chop and crop and throw in a few more NYC chopper shots, as if we’ve forgotten where it takes place. The leads – Caine, Freeman, and Alan Arkin – are, needless to say, wonderful individually and even better together, with a relaxed, lived-in chemistry. (Caine also gets a good thing going with the talented Joey King, who plays the granddaughter.) This cast could’ve worked wonders with a straight remake of Brest’s script, one not only slyly funny but full of quiet moments of dramatic truth and unfiltered melancholy; I can’t stop thinking of Lee Strasberg’s teary-eyed, heart-breaking monologue about the moment when he ruined his relationship with his son, and what wonders Arkin could’ve done with it. But there’s no room for that kind of thing here, because it’s not a scene about plot, but theme: living a long life, with regrets.
Such heady concerns are far beyond Going In Style ‘17’s grasp. There is, by my count, one moment of real dramatic weight, in which the trio are calculating how much of the money to keep and must ask each other, “How long do you think you’ve got?” But it’s a fleeting beat, over before it starts; generally, the film’s notion of “drama” is found in moments of soppy, piano-scored treacle. It’s not moving, it’s not exciting, and it’s not funny. It’s one thing to know that a movie could’ve been great. It’s worse to know that it was once great, and they chose to fuck it up.