"Stand Up Guys" Barely Worth Sitting Through

It’s almost inconceivable that Lionsgate thought highly enough of “Stand Up Guys” to give it an Oscar-qualifying run in late 2012. What exactly fueled these delusions of grandeur? Was it the ramshackle script that sputters and stalls like a broken down Cutlass? Could it have been the rambling, borderline incoherent performances by its legendary leads? I’m guessing it wasn’t the appalling score by Lyle Workman or the laughably precious original songs by Jon Bon Jovi. No, it was probably just business. Name recognition goes a long way in Hollywood and Lionsgate did what they had to do. Even if their ill-conceived plan of snookering a few Oscar voters didn’t pan out, they had to wear their best poker face. You can’t just shelve a film starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin, as much as it deserves to be shelved. But, hey! Jon Bon Jovi got a Golden Globe nomination!

Directed by Fisher Stevens and scripted by Noah Haidle, “Stand Up Guys” is about a pair of aging crooks, Val (Pacino) and Doc (Walken), who happen to be best friends. Val is fresh out of the joint (where he served nearly three decades) while Doc lives a painfully mundane life, centered on his obsession with cable television (no, it isn’t a period piece). Act I is a hurricane of hackneyed erectile dysfunction jokes, as Val takes a bottle full of Viagra-like pills in order to make it with a Russian prostitute. The usually funny Lucy Punch (“Hot Fuzz,” “Dinner For Schmucks”) plays the brothel’s madam and fails to land any laughs, although it’s not for a lack of trying. The screenplay is just rotten to the core.

The only source of conflict (other than old age) is that Doc has been hired to kill Val by a fellow criminal, the woefully named Claphands (Mark Margolis). The narrative quickly becomes an unexciting game of “will he or won’t he,” especially when Val becomes wise to and accepting of Doc’s “one final gig.” It’s not unbelievable that Val would be resigned to his fate, but we know so little about the character that it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to care.

The banter between Pacino and Walken paints a picture of senility, and whether intentional or not, the result is that the “funny” dialogue comes off as sad and the sad, self-reflective dialogue doesn’t come off at all. It’s not until the script introduces a saccharine subplot about a relative of Doc’s that we feel anything at all. And by that point, the main source of our distress is the fact that these stars are clearly wasting everyone’s time.

But where does Alan Arkin fit into all of this? On one hand, he gets off easy. His role as a fellow crook (former getaway driver to Doc and Val) is nothing more than an extended cameo, so the burden of the picture is never his to bear. In fact, the film is at its best when he’s on screen and he provides a nice foil to the blank stares of his co-stars. Yet, the way the project utilizes Arkin – as something of an accessory, a gimmicky, disposable talent – is sort of repugnant and amazingly disrespectful. Perhaps his shooting schedule only allowed for twenty minutes of screen time, but his character isn’t allowed the courtesy of a proper introduction or a remotely satisfying exit.

But as lifeless as the film is, it’s difficult to dismiss the fun of seeing these three in the same movie. There are brief, intermittent flashes of what could have been, and when the dialogue does come to life, there are scraps of fun to be had. A brief conversation about bees is particularly inspired, as is a dance sequence featuring Pacino and an unsuspecting twenty-something. But these brief surges in momentum are never sustained and too much of the film founders to allow for any kind of late game redemption. It’s no fun to see your heroes flail about on screen, and it’s even less fun to hear them acknowledge that their primes are far behind them. But at least Pacino and Arkin will always have “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: February 1, 2013
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Fisher Stevens
Screenwriter: Noah Haidle
Starring: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, Vanessa Ferlito, Mark Margolis
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content, violence and brief drug use)