There's a lot to be said for hangout comedies full of likable stars; wooed by their banter, we may forget to care whether the movie has a plot, compelling visuals or much else. But all successful hangout movies have another indispensable element: a great screenplay, or at least a strong framework off which the actors can improvise.
The lack of that key ingredient is the downfall of Just Getting Started, a film whose marketing may lead viewers to expect a crime caper. What they get instead is a rambling, low-stakes hangout movie in which stars Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones appear to be having more fun than anyone watching them is.
Freeman plays Duke, the manager of a swanky Palm Springs, Calif., retirement community called Villa Capri. In his mind, he's the petty prince of a tiny nation, bossing his underlings and assembling a harem of the most attractive women.
Naturally, Duke is alarmed when the charismatically laconic Leo (Jones) moves in on his territory, stealing his parking space and cleaning up at his private poker game. Soon the two are competing for the same woman, Suzie Quince (Rene Russo), who's visiting Villa Capri with an agenda of her own.
It's an amusing enough setup, and fine supporting players like the late, lamented Glenne Headly are there to remind us of the antics of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels past. But here, writer-director Ron Shelton is a long way from the cerebral wit of his Bull Durham heyday.
The script does boast a few snappy lines, as when Duke sums up his vision for Villa Capri: "Sex, booze, golf and then you die." But most of the verbal comedy in Just Getting Started dips closer to the groan-worthy level of Headly's response to Freeman's mention of a flocked Christmas tree: "I could use a good flocking." The physical comedy, such as a table-games tournament between the two leads that ends in a limbo-off, isn't much funnier.
As for the plotting, it's downright careless; the less said about the cartoonish mobster who's stalking Duke, the better. With its barely sketched, implausible details, the crime plot comes off as little more than an excuse for Duke and Leo to bond during an all-night stakeout.
Both actors give loose, amiable performances, and the odd-couple chemistry between them — one manic, the other stoic — can be fun to watch. Russo is a pleasure to see on screen, too, but she can't do much with a wildly inconsistent character. One moment, Suzie is old-movie elegance personified; the next, a humorless businesswoman; the next, a rom-com-style ditz. And, because she makes no sense, the moment when she points out that the two men see her as a romantic prize rather than a person carries no weight.
That's unfortunate, because it's still pretty rare to see movies in which sixtysomething women play powerful professionals and romantic partners rather than somebody's mom or grandma. Shelton deserves credit for not filling the film with tired senior-comedy jokes and for acknowledging that folks can be committed, self-aware hedonists at any age.
Yet he portrays his characters in such broad strokes that they barely seem like functional adults, let alone people with significant life experience behind them. Intellectual name-dropping — at one point, Duke volunteers to recite Charles Baudelaire and e. e. cummings — doesn't erase the pervasive sense that we're watching a first draft someone tossed off between rounds of golf. Villa Capri sure looks like a good time, but the movie is the opposite.