Friday, November 1, 2013

Last Vegas: A reasonable bet

Last Vegas (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang

Old pros are a Hollywood treasure.

They make everything look effortless, bringing warmth and depth even to ordinary material, transforming simple scenes into memorable dramatic moments.

Safely deposited in a trendy Las Vegas hotel/casino, our heroes — from left, Sam (Kevin
Kline), Archie (Morgan Freeman), Paddy (Robert De Niro) and Billy (Michael Douglas) —
wonder how to begin their "fabulous weekend." As it turns out, a poolside bikini contest
will become the perfect ice-breaker.
The bonus, in the case of Last Vegas, is that Dan Fogelman’s script isn’t merely The Hangover for the geezer set; his little story is alternately funny and poignant, with mildly earthy touches that draw laughs while never straying into vulgarity.

As the cherry on top, we even get a solid moral: Life ain’t over unless we lay down and give up. Every new day, no matter what our age, brings the potential for fresh magic and unexpected delights ... as long as we’re willing to risk the unexpected.

Back in the day, the “Flatbush Four” were inseparable best friends: scrappy kids convinced that anything was possible, as long as they looked out for each other. Director Jon Turteltaub conveys this dynamic with a charming photo booth montage that plays behind the opening credits: a giddy burst of youthful energy that defines relationships and, yes, reveals that two of these boys are sweet on the same girl.

Flash-forward to the present day, and — ennui being inevitable — that enthusiastic youthful fire has dimmed to a flickering spark. Pulsating embers, if any still exist, are buried beneath graying ash. These former friends stay in touch, but only fitfully.

Archie (Morgan Freeman), following an “episode” that sent his adult son into a panic, has been put under well-meaning but soul-draining lockdown, constantly cautioned against doing anything more strenuous than picking up a book. Sam (Kevin Kline), although boasting a long and happy marriage with Miriam (Joanna Gleason), spends his days surrounded by elderly friends who reaffirm his own vanishing vitality.

A senior center regimen of swimming pool exercises is both hilarious and tragic, the misery evident in Sam’s resigned expression. Resigned, but never quiet; Sam isn’t one to suffer silently ... which makes his despair that much more obvious to Miriam.

Paddy (Robert De Niro) has become a virtual recluse, refusing to budge from the apartment he shared for so long with his own adored wife, dead now for a year; the home has become a photograph-laden tribute to her memory. A well-meaning young neighbor regularly brings soup, probably as an excuse to verify that he’s still alive; Paddy grumpily insists she shouldn’t bother.

Billy (Michael Douglas), the most financially successful of the quartet, has remained single all this time, perhaps hoping that youth can be retained by surrounding himself with a lifetime’s supply of willing young women. Now, however, he has impulsively popped the question to his current girlfriend, Lisa (Bre Blair); she has accepted.

Their striking age difference — she’s in her early 30s — raises eyebrows. So do the circumstances under which the proposal emerges.

Such details aside, Billy wants to gather the ol' gang for an appropriately boisterous bachelor party. The wedding has been scheduled for Las Vegas, obviously just the setting for this potential bacchanalia. Sam and Archie are delighted, the latter concealing his intentions beneath the cover story of a “church outing.”

Paddy ... not so much. Prying him out of the apartment is hard enough; even worse is the festering enmity that has soured his relationship with Billy. Paddy has ample cause for his anger, but — as happens more than once, in Fogelman’s script — things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

Eventually, inevitably, the aging Flatbush Four assemble in Vegas, Paddy grousing every step of the way. Whatever is about to happen remains tantalizing but uncertain, our protagonists bewildered by the mechanics of booking a hotel room, let alone determining how to uncork a party that’s supposed to be “legendary.”

Salvation arrives in the form of Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a game but mostly ignored lounge singer. She sparkles under the appreciative glow of their attention; they loosen up in the presence of her uncomplicated exuberance.

By which time we, as well, have been drawn under this film’s spell, fully invested in what comes next.

De Niro, Freeman, Douglas and Kline work well as a team, generously setting each other up for gently caustic one-liners and well-timed double-takes. The film makes ample sport of their fish-out-of-water awkwardness, whether flummoxed by electronically operated room curtains, or apoplectic over the costs involved with “table service” at a trendy nightclub.

Vegas is similarly rich with unusual archetypes, of course, and Fogelman doesn’t miss many ... except, refreshingly, any intimation of hookers with a heart of gold (or any lesser metal). This film’s taste runs more toward the pantomiming members of the Cirque du Soleil troupe from Zarkana, or the rowdy drag queens from a celebrity impersonation revue: the perfect foils for an endless wealth of bewildered expressions and self-deprecating verbal slips and quips from the Flatbush Four.

De Niro still delivers the best hangdog expression in Hollywood, which Turteltaub encourages but carefully avoids overusing. Paddy, for all his gripes, turns out to be the serious guy in this group: the one who cuts to the chase, particularly when it comes to Billy’s pending nuptials. He and Douglas share a memorable moment during a quiet, early morning poolside encounter. Paddy’s lingering irritation notwithstanding, he nonetheless cannot stand to see his onetime best friend make a mistake ... if, indeed, that’s the case.

The scene has surprising depth and sincerity: quite unexpected in what is being billed as a raucous, superficial comedy. It feels like a conversation that would take place between two men who know each other intimately, their current estrangement notwithstanding.

Douglas imbues Billy with just the right splash of superficial bonhomie: the fellow guaranteed to liven up a party, but bearing a smile that extends no further than his too-bright teeth. At the same time, Billy obviously teeters on the edge of nervous despair, the twitchy, often glazed look in Douglas' eyes conveying ... something. Resignation? Terror? Clearly, Billy isn't a happy guy.

Freeman makes the most of Archie’s hidden reservoir of debonair dash, always at odds with his quiet, deceptively meek exterior. Truth is, Archie is virtually giddy with his newfound freedom, embracing even little things like a kid released from long-term detention. Nothing is warmer than Freeman’s full-wattage smile, and his smooth moves are to die for.

Kline, in turn, makes Sam the mildly fussy smart-aleck, forever covering his insecurities with a joke. Thanks to a most unexpected gift from his wife, Sam throws himself into the Las Vegas “experience” ... despite having no clue what that experience really is. He learns as he goes, and Kline’s athletic grace is employed to marvelous comic effect, as Sam rebounds from one misunderstanding to another, particular when the gang encounters a gaggle of young women — April Billingsley’s maid of honor is a standout — at a nightclub bachelorette party.

Steenburgen, having no business being so stunning for somebody who just turned 60, literally radiates warmth and precocious curiosity, as Diana slowly gets a bead on her four new companions. Her most intimate moments come with Paddy and Billy, both drawn to her incandescence. I particularly like a quiet scene between Steenburgen and Douglas, as Diana and Billy wander among a museum display of discarded Las Vegas neon signs: a clever nod to the old-versus-new undertone that flows throughout this film.

Jerry Ferrara, well remembered as Turtle from TV’s Entourage, has a droll supporting role as Dean, an obnoxious young snot eventually forced, in delicious fashion, to rue his boorish behavior. Romany Malco is less successful as Lonnie, the VIP host put in charge of the Flatbush Four. Lonnie’s initial dismay at this assignment is much too visibly contemptuous, given the graciousness required of somebody holding such a job, and Malco never quite recovers from this introduction; he never makes Lonnie sound genuine.

Cinematographer David Hennings has plenty of fun with Vegas glamour and glitz, and he definitely catches the atmosphere of the opulent ARIA Resort and Casino, where much of the story’s action is staged. Mark Mothersbaugh contributes a droll score, although it would have been nice to hear better defined character themes for each of our four heroes.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this film’s touches of poignance and genuine character depth, since Fogelman also wrote 2011’s richly entertaining Crazy, Stupid, Love. He navigates humor and bittersweet letdowns quite shrewdly, with heartwarming results.

Turteltaub, recently seduced by the empty, high-concept calories of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the National Treasure series, makes a welcome return to the more deftly calibrated directorial chops he displayed in earlier efforts such as Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping and Phenomenon.

Last Vegas is a nice surprise: a whimsical dramedy certain to please the older viewers at whom it has been targeted. Sadly, the younger demographic probably won’t go near it, even with so many bodaciously curvy bikini babes on display. That’s a shame, because the story’s message is all-ages-appropriate: Embrace the moment.

Which you can do while embracing this film.

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