Friday, April 7, 2017

Going in Style: A stylish romp

Going in Style (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for drug content, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.7.17

Remakes rarely live up to their predecessors.

This is one of the exceptions.

Once Jesus (John Ortiz, second from right) realizes that his three new "friends" — from
left, Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) — are serious
about their desire to rob a bank, he does his best to save them from rookie mistakes.
Director Zach Braff’s re-booted Going in Style charms from beginning to end, thanks to scripter Theodore Melfi’s savvy update of the 1979 original. That film seriously misled audiences with an advertising campaign that promised droll hijinks from its veteran cast — George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg — when, in fact, it was a serious downer that became progressively more depressing.

Braff and Melfi learned from that mistake. Their new Style makes ample comedic use of its fresh trio of veteran scene-stealers — Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin — while supplying some trenchant social commentary, which was absent the first time around.

It’s also obvious, in the wake of the Wells Fargo scandal and other recent examples of greedy, soulless financial skullduggery, that banks — and bank officers — are likely to spend the next several years competing alongside Nazis, as go-to movie villains. I can’t imagine a more fitting punishment.

Best friends Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) live across the street from each other in a fading Brooklyn neighborhood. Willie and Albert share one home, their combined pension and Social Security payments just enough to keep them in modest comfort. Joe has taken in his daughter and beloved granddaughter, Brooklyn (Joey King); his monthly pension check is barely enough to meet the mortgage.

Or it was, back when the checks still arrived. They’ve been absent of late, thanks to “restructuring” by the company that has absorbed Semtech Steel, where the three men spent their working careers.

The first body blow comes with a warning notice that the bank holding Joe’s mortgage is about to foreclose; the killing punch follows quickly, when a (very brave) Semtech flack gathers employees and retirees, and announces that the new corporate owners have moved all operations overseas. And that all pensions will be dissolved in order to help cover outstanding debt.

Adding insult to injury, this heartless financial rape will be overseen by the very bank holding Joe’s mortgage.

Joe makes a token effort to protest the bank’s behavior, but his pleas are ignored by a smarmy, condescending manager (Josh Pais, hilariously pompous and patronizing). Just as Caine’s rising fury suggests that he might reach across the desk in order to knock the guy’s teeth out, their “chat” is interrupted by a spectacularly noisy trio of masked bank robbers; they conduct their business rapidly, successfully making off with quite a haul.

Over the next few days, a crazy idea percolates in Joe’s head, until he finally shares it with his buddies: “I’m thinking of robbing a bank.”

Actually, not “a” bank, but the bank. The one that matters.

Willie, long bothered by the distance that separates him from his own daughter and granddaughter — and the budget limitations that prevent more frequent visits — doesn’t take much persuading. The eternally cranky Albert, on the other hand, remains the objecting voice of reason and sanity: no way, no how.

Until he, too, gets angry enough to reconsider.

By this point, thanks to Melfi’s carefully constructed script, our sympathy lies firmly with these guys. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of carefully constructed supporting characters, from closely knit family members (notably Joe’s granddaughter) to the smugly sarcastic waitress (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, a stitch) at the café where all three men often gather for coffee and pie.

Al is being pursued by Annie (Ann-Margret), who works at their neighborhood grocery store, and isn’t about to be deterred by his apparent lack of interest. The lodge where the guys gather for companionship and an occasional (atrocious) meal is dominated by the well-intentioned but scatterbrained antics of Milton (Christopher Lloyd, still drawing laughs from his wide-eyed expressions of bewilderment).

The point is that Melfi has taken care to give personalities, back-stories and bits of business even to the smallest sidebar roles that normally get ignored by lesser writers. Goodness, even the grocery store manager (Kenan Thompson) gets a couple of choice scenes.

More crucially, our three protagonists have solid reasons for their foolish scheme: They’ve been screwed, and they’re in dire financial distress. (In the first film, Burns and his buddies pulled the caper solely because they were bored.) We don’t merely sympathize; we want them to succeed.

Caine makes ample use of his signature Cockney charm; he has a unique gift for righteous indignation that never quite stifles his character’s inherent refinement. We understand that Joe might get annoyed enough to smack somebody in the chops, but he’d do it politely, and likely apologize afterwards. And, as always, he’s quick with a well-timed quip.

Freeman’s Willie is a quieter study: an analyzer who listens and smiles. We can tell — from Freeman’s gaze — that he’s contemplating actions and consequences, like a master chess player seven moves ahead. Unlike his two friends, Willie isn’t one to vent fears or frustrations; he carries such troubles stoically, although we sense the pain within.

Arkin has made a career of playing lovably irritable curmudgeons, so Albert isn’t much of a stretch. But the character’s cranky vinegar is essential, in order to blunt the (mostly) sugar-sweetness that radiates from Caine and Freeman. Besides, this sour disposition gives Albert a transformational starting point, as Annie progressively ups her game.

Ann-Margret is feisty, effervescent and quite sexy as that lady in question; it’s always refreshing to experience a storyline that allows senior citizens to demonstrate that they’ve the same emotions, appetites and carnal drives as members of younger generations.

The incredibly busy King — not yet 20, and already boasting more than 50 film and TV credits — makes Brooklyn warm, affectionate and just snarky enough to remain a credibly real teenager. Her dynamic with Caine, as Joe walks her to and from school each day, is quite touching.

John Ortiz has a pivotal supporting role as Jesus, a shady character who runs a pet store as a cover for undisclosed bad behavior, and who agrees to help these novice bank robbers avoid the obvious pitfalls of their mad endeavor. Ortiz also gets in some great one-liners, his straight face making their delivery even funnier.

Matt Dillon is intriguing, as FBI Agent Hamer. At first blush he’s just another condescending jerk who seems destined for a brief walk-on appearance ... but he keeps reappearing, his role expanding as the narrative progresses. Peter Serafinowicz is equally memorable as Joe’s ex-son-in-law, and Brooklyn’s father: another role that we initially assume will be fleeting, but expands in Melfi’s clever hands.

Braff, still well remembered from his long run on TV’s Scrubs, has grown considerably since his big-screen directorial debut on 2004’s Garden State. His work here is methodical and assured, and he deserves equal credit for drawing distinct characters from every member of this engaging ensemble cast. Braff also has an unerring instinct for comic timing, and his guiding hand ensures that every tart line of dialog gets maximum exposure.

This new Going in Style probably won’t gain much traction with action-crazy post-millennials — their loss — but it’ll be a guaranteed hit with savvier (older?) viewers who appreciate the skill with which this talented ensemble cast has been matched with such a well-crafted script.

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