On paper, “Going in Style” seemed like a disaster waiting to happen: Your favorite newly minted Hollywood old-timers are now pros at thoughtless grandpa humor. But stars Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin wouldn’t dare let that happen — given their prestige and everlasting class.
The caper film, stylish as it may be, is a dated genre. You see very few movies about elaborate heists or high-stakes robberies anymore, especially if they don’t involve car chases or George Clooney. Even then, the films are remakes, like “Going in Style” is of a 1979 film featuring three old friends planning to rob a Las Vegas casino. The 2017 iteration doesn’t take Caine, Freeman and Arkin to a casino, but they get into thieving shenanigans nonetheless. The film is not so much a glaring throwback to classic capers as it is a slight refitting of the genre, a refitting for stars that can make it work.
Essentially, Joe, Willie and Al (Caine, Freeman and Arkin, respectively) are decades-old friends who live across the street from each other and share snarky conversations over pie at a local diner. The steel company they worked for has frozen all pensions, and as a result, Joe is on the verge of losing his house. After witnessing a robbery at a Williamsburg bank, Joe decides that robbing a bank would be the trio’s best chance at living a comfortable life again. Willie and Al eventually acquiesce.
Thanks to the thoughtfulness of fresh-faced “Hidden Figures” screenwriter Theodore Melfi, the men’s predicament speaks more to 2017 cultural injustices than the 1979 “Going in Style” did. In fact, the original saw Joe pitching the idea of a bank robbery merely to spice up their humdrum lives. No one was losing their house, nor were money-grubbing steel company executives screwing over their present and past employees. Really, it’s a subtly hard-hitting plotline for a comedy that could’ve just shown some gray-haired pals trying their hands at crime.
The gold in this film doesn’t lie in its mild social commentary, however. The most remarkable feat of “Going in Style” is the comic timing of its actors.
In his third feature film, director Zach Braff (of “Scrubs” fame) draws out the perky, vibrant sides of the legendary performers on board his film. All three men — Caine and Arkin in particular — confidently land jokes in infuriatingly brilliant fashion. A scene in which Joe and Willie try to steal ingredients at a grocery store for Al’s cordon bleu is the film’s legitimate bellyacher. Willie stuffs an entire pork loin down his pants and Joe tucks an unsuspecting sack of flour in his coat — and they really expect it to fly. Then Willie becomes the ET to Joe’s Elliott as they make a disastrous escape in a motorized cart, leaving a cloud of flour down the streets of Queens.
The trio steal scenes even alongside “SNL” cast member Kenan Thompson, who makes an appearance as a grocery store security guard.
Agist stereotypes and “grandpa humor” are, for the most part, left behind in the comedy category. It’s mostly pure, dry humor — unless a bubbling Ann-Margret/Alan Arkin love affair counts as overtly raunchy. We can almost forgive the inclusion of played-for-laughs character Milton (Christopher Lloyd), a man with dementia, as the rest of the humor is fairly clean-cut and classy.
For the more nostalgic movie-goer, it’s quite a wonder to see Michael Caine reprise an archetype he played over and over again onscreen during the 1960s and 1970s: the dapper, dryly funny fellow with a knack for heists and other missions of stealth. As Joe, Caine is every bit as savvy as he was in films like “The Italian Job” and “Get Carter.” Sadly, Hollywood doesn’t have an appetite for that type of film anymore. Here, Caine is an image of subtle, heartwarming nostalgia for cinema’s past.
Along with Arkin and Freeman, Caine reminds us how fun heist films can be and makes us long for a fresh, stylish one that perhaps doesn’t require a goofy storyline (or another remake). More so, ‘Going in Style” reminds us that all three men are still charming as hell.
“Going in Style” opens today at Shattuck Cinemas.