I suddenly realized, while struggling to stay awake during the limp and unfunny Going in Style, that it seemed like forever ago that I first started seeing trailers for the film. Had its release been postponed after an initial marketing push, or was it just so uninspired and familiar that it merely felt as if I’d seen it all before?
Both, as it turns out: Style was original slated to open almost a year ago, in May 2016 (which means I probably saw trailers in late 2015), and it’s also such a stale wisp of a dustbunny that it barely stands out from its own background noise. It’s storytelling like what we’re subjected to here that surely helped move the original definition of pabulum (bland tasteless food that provides nothing but essential sustenance) along to the metaphoric one: bland, tasteless entertainmentstuff intended to neither move nor offend.
And yet Going in Style is even worse than that. A very loose updating of the 1979 movie starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three old guys who decide to rob a bank just for fun, to relieve the boredom of their lives in retirement, this one posits that three old guys in New York City need to rob a bank in revenge for post-Great Recession economic injustices that have directly impacted them: a foreclosed home, guaranteed pensions that sudden disappear, lousy health insurance. Basically, it’s Hell or High Water with geezers, except not at all good, filled with “jokes” about senility and arthritis and devoid of any emotional or intellectual impact. Screenwriter Theodore Melfi (who wrote and directed Hidden Figures, which this movie makes seem unlikely) appears not to want us think too deeply about what is driving Joe (Michael Caine: Now You See Me 2, The Last Witch Hunter), Willie (Morgan Freeman: Ben-Hur, London Has Fallen), and Al (Alan Arkin: Love the Coopers, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), but rather would have us forget that we might share similar woes. Going in Style uses real money problems that real people are having right now as a way to kickstart its story, but then it all but tosses those motives away. It could have railed, even in a light comedic way, against the systemic economic crimes we are all too familiar with these days, but instead it seems to think it can somehow stand on them and simultaneously distract us from them. Even as bread and circuses — or pabulum and circuses, or maybe pabulum and a cheap carny — this is weirdly inept.
Simple distraction would be enough! Make us laugh, make us cry, make us feel something, anything. That never happens here. The deployment of some “heisty” music during the opening credits aside, this is not a heist movie, with, say, a lot of clever planning of their bank holdup to engage us. (There’s a bit of that, but like everything else here, it’s a sad pile of nothing, including a “test run” that involves shoplifting from a supermarket, a sequence that doesn’t make the slenderest whit of sense as practice for a bank robbery and falls painfully flat on its own.) There’s not much in the way of pathos, not in the increasingly threatening letters Joe gets from his bank about his unpaid mortgage, not in the medical issues that Willie is keeping secret from his friends. The saddest depths the guys descend to that is actually dramatized onscreen involves not being able to afford to buy slices of pie at their diner hangout, which isn’t much (though at least we get to spend a little bit of time with their regular waitress, a snarkmeister of the highest order; Siobhan Fallon Hogan [The Bounty Hunter, Baby Mama] is the only spark of life in this movie). We never feel their pain.
There’s a huge plot hole at the end of the movie, when we’re meant to understand the motive for someone’s inexplicable act but don’t; I blame director Zach Braff (Garden State) for this, because I suspect that if something had received some more emphasis earlier, we’d make the connection we fail to make. (I don’t know what bit is missing emphasis, because that’s one of the things that fails to rise beyond the background noise.) There’s also a really tortured bit of attempted cleverness at the end that, if the script were truly clever, it would have found its way to much sooner; the fact that it doesn’t feels like another huge plot hole.
Perhaps Going in Style’s biggest missed opportunity is that it makes a villain out of an FBI agent (a wasted Matt Dillon: The Art of the Steal, Girl Most Likely) who seems like a smart, decent guy, instead of making villains out of the bank who all but cheated Joe out of his house and the corporation that all but stole the three geezers’ pensions. It’s like the movie doesn’t even understand itself.