Look, there’s no getting around the fact that when you bring together three of the classiest, most recognizable older actors currently working (Oscar winners all, I should add), there’s going to be a certain level of enjoyability in whatever they do. And actor-turned-director Zach Braff (Garden State) has picked a great vehicle for his senior cast (which expands to include the likes of Ann-Margret and Christopher Lloyd)—a remake of the 1979 dark comedy Going in Style. Again, on paper, all of this looks great, especially when you take note that the screenplay has been adapted by Theodore Melfi, who just directed a little movie from last year called Hidden Figures. The formula seems ripe for a solid little movie, even if it doesn’t quite hit all of its marks. So why was I actively cringing through so much of this film?
I’m guessing many of you have not seen the original Going in Style, which starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three old friends who are barely scraping by financially and decide to rob a bank. As the title indicates (and many people seem to forget), the film is about guys who are willing to die trying, and a couple of them do. But Braff and Melfi have taken the entirety of the edge off of Edward Cannon’s original screenplay and turned it into Grumpy Old Bank Robbers, with a nicer wardrobe.
The set up remains the same, three old-timers—Willie (Freeman), Joe (Caine), and Albert (Arkin)—are having their pensions pillaged by the owners of the factory where they all used to work. One afternoon when Joe is at the bank, begging them not to foreclose on his house that he shares with his daughter and granddaughter (Joey King), the bank is robbed by three expert thieves who are in and out in under two minutes, getting away with a couple million. Being in the midst of this excitement gives Joe the idea to do something similar to the same bank that just happens to be helping their former employer rob them of their pension, and the three begin planning the job with the help of recommended one-time crook (John Ortiz).
There are fleeting moments when I thought this version of Going in Style would stick to its more somber roots. Joe in on the verge of losing everything, Willie is in the midst of massive kidney failure, and every so often, the gang gets a glimpse at what getting older can truly become, especially when they see their pal Milton (Lloyd) going through the day forgetting who he is half the time. But don’t worry: somehow Braff plays early onset dementia for giggles. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Albert, who meets a nice lady (Ann-Margret) at the local grocery store that the boys try to shoplift from as something of a test run for the bigger bank job. Arkin almost single handedly keeps this movie afloat, as he seems in complete shock that any woman would be interested in him at his age. He’s the only reliable source of laughs in the film, while everyone else in the cast seems to be stuck in the worst version of a Garry Marshall picture.
I think we can all admit now that Braff’s instincts as a director are to go big and broad, leave no room for subtlety, and make sure every member of the audience know exactly when they should laugh or cry. And while Garden State was a lovely little movie, both Wish I Was Here and Going in Style are exercises in clubbing the audience over the head with message and dopey jokes about being old. The supporting cast includes the likes of Matt Dillon, Kenan Thompson, and the great Peter Serafinowicz as Joe’s low-life former son-in-law, and there’s nothing wrong with the way any of them play their roles. The issue is that the overall work is underwritten to the point where ideas feel half-baked and performers are left trying to make up the difference, without much success. It’s perhaps a closer call than I’m giving it credit for, but Going in Style still falls on the side of failure.