In the course of three decades as a reviewer, there have certainly been times when I’ve changed my mind about a film. There have been a few I initially dismissed and later grew to admire. And even fewer I considered significant on the initial viewing but less so with successive ones. I can’t recall, however, ever changing my mind about a film — doing a complete critical 180 — while still in the process of watching it. That’s exactly what happened in the course of watching Stand Up Guys.
To say it doesn’t start out promisingly is an understatement. Al Pacino, now 72, plays Val, a small-time hood getting out of jail after 28 years. Christopher Walken, who’ll be 70 next month, is Doc, the old friend and partner in crime who picks him up. Can you blame me for abandoning all hope when, within minutes, the reunion has degenerated into a brothel visit and extended Viagra gag? I’m pretty sure I could’ve made it through life without hearing the man who played Michael Corleone utter the line “I’ve got a python in my pants.”
Next stop: a nursing home. The two decide to “rescue” their one-time getaway driver, a semi-comatose coot attached to an oxygen tank. Hirsch is played by Alan Arkin (age 78). It’s the movie that’s in serious need of saving when his friends’ pop-in magically rejuvenates the old fellow. The filmmakers aren’t content to have him outmaneuver cops in a high-speed freeway chase; back at the brothel, he follows that up by realizing his lifelong dream of having a three-way. Even that’s not ridiculous enough for the movie’s makers, though: Hirsch’s paid pals fall madly in love with him.
Then, just as you’re about to write the whole thing off as mobster bucket-list baloney, the last thing you expect happens: Things get interesting. And human. And real. The film turns its focus to the relationship between Val and Doc, and we come to understand there’s more happening here than we realized. What looked like Val’s first night of freedom may in actuality be his last hurrah.
The boss (Mark Margolis) of the organization for which Pacino’s character worked has, we learn, also been counting the days to his release. His son was killed by a bullet from Val’s gun in the shoot-out with police for which Val did time. Neither the accidental nature of the death nor Val’s refusal to rat out the gang makes a lick of difference. Margolis’ character wants Val dead by 10 a.m., and he wants Doc to pull the trigger.
Directed by Fisher Stevens (Just a Kiss) and written by newcomer Noah Haidle, the picture isn’t so much a work of art as a playground for a couple of artists doing their most resonant work in years. Pacino and Walken pull pathos and gravitas out of thin air, imbuing these two characters with depth beyond anything in Haidle’s script. As the old friends drink and drug the night away, they speak wistfully of lives misspent and matter of factly about what awaits them in the morning.
Stevens’ second feature proves unexpectedly thoughtful and affecting, thanks in large part to virtuoso interplay between its leads. And, speaking of unexpected, how about an Amour reference? Like Michael Haneke’s Oscar contender, Stand Up Guys offers a clear-eyed rumination on the limits of human connection in the face of old age and death. The list of films that waded into waters this existential over the past year isn’t exactly long. I don’t want to oversell it, but that’s not bad company for a movie that came this close to being Grumpy Old Gangsters.