Appellate Judge Michael Stailey will not go gentle into that good night.
A comedy in the first degree.
Every so often, our lives need shaking up. A break in the routine, a change of scenery, a little adventure. This is especially true for America's senior citizens. Unlike the Asian cultures where the elderly are active members of society, respected and revered, America is obsessed with its youth. We put our aged in nursing homes or assisted living communities, keeping them out of sight and out of mind. Few seem to realize that simply ignoring the issue does not make the problems associated with aging go away. No one wants to get old, become obsolete, and feel useless. So why not do something about it? In 1979, writer/director Marty Brest—the man responsible for such comedic hits as Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run—completed his sophomore directorial effort, a touching comedy about three men in their twilight years who refuse to go quietly.
Facts of the Case
"I'm sick of this shit."—Joe
Every day, it's the same thing. Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney), and Willie (Lee Strasberg) sit on the same bench and watch the same ugly kids play in the same park. It's enough to push anyone, young or old, past their breaking point.
The three are longtime friends, retired widowers sharing their remaining days in a modest apartment in Astoria, Long Island, in a 20th century adaptation of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Sadly, the biggest excitement they have in life is picking up and depositing their Social Security checks; about as much fun as repeatedly poking a stick in your eye. However, this particular trip to the bank triggers something deep inside Joe.
"How's about we all go on a stick up? It's fool proof. If it works, we'll be in great shape. If not, maybe they'll give us three years. That would be free room and board, and when we get out we'd each have 36 Social Security checks waiting for us. Not a bad piece of change. But that's only if we get caught, and I don't think we'd get caught."—Joe
When the initial shock wears off, Al sees the demented genius behind Joe's plan. Willie's a little more reticent. They're good, law-abiding men who have done their part for family and country, yet somehow continue to be screwed by the system. What have they got to lose? At the very least, they'll be doing something other than sitting on that damn bench.
"Joe? You really think this is gonna work?"—Willie
Going in Style is one of those rare, small films easily passed over in the pantheon of Hollywood legend. Much like Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, here is a story that is not quite what it appears to be. Both marketed as comedies, each are in fact heartfelt dramas about the human experience and the bonds we forge with the people who walk in and out of our lives.
Joe, Al, and Willie are partners in life, sharing nearly every moment of their daily existence together. Aside from Al, whose nephew and family live nearby, these men have only each other to care for and little to occupy their time or interests. It's a depressing existence. Why then do so many intelligent people accept this fate at face value?
More often than not, the answer is fear—fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of disappointment, and even fear of attaining one's long-held hopes and dreams. Because of this fear, most choose to do nothing. We keep our crummy jobs, our abusive relationships, and our empty lives. Wake up, folks. Contrary to popular belief, the meek do not inherit the earth. No, it's those who push past their fears to whom the spoils are awarded.
Joe, Al, and Willie are a handful of the brave ones. Smart? No, but they have the right idea. The journey is their reward, not the destination. Without giving anything away, it is safe to say these men experience more adventure in 48 hours than many encounter in a lifetime. With each and every sunrise, we are given a new opportunity to make a positive impact on our own lives and the lives of those around us. The choice is ours. The trick is not to waste it.
Unmercifully vilified and crucified for his most recent project, the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez tabloid fodder Gigli, Brest reminds us how impressive the visual medium can be devoid of unnecessary words. The heart of this film can be found in several long, beautifully silent shots, conveying more power and emotion than any verbal or physical outburst could ever hope to achieve. And doesn't that perfectly capture people who have been together a long time? Watch them sometimes, at a restaurant, on the street, or at family gatherings. Entire conversations can be had with nothing more than a handful of facial expressions and the occasional touch.
Of course, it helps to have three of the acting profession's most respected members on hand to deliver the message. George Burns, often viewed as the world's greatest straight man—for years playing off his partner Gracie Allen, on both stage and screen—sets his usual standup routine aside and floors the audience with a touching portrayal of a man who's had enough. He's tired of playing the game, so he changes the rules. Of course, every choice has its consequences, and in these moments the legendary comedian achieves remarkable results. One need only watch Joe rummaging through a box of memories to understand what I mean. (See if you are able to catch the brief but special cameo made here.)
Art Carney, best known for his role as Jackie Gleason's best friend on The Honeymooners, hits a career high with his performance as Al. This man has viewed life through the window of a tour bus, rarely getting off to explore the sights or immerse himself in the culture. This adventure has given him new energy and life, and through an impromptu vacation, we are able to marvel at the emotional depth this talented actor brings forth.
Even with these two exceptional performances, it is Lee Strasberg, one of the world's most respected acting teachers, who turns in the film's command performance. Willie may have the smallest amount of spoken dialogue, but his presence in each scene speaks volumes. The understated subtlety of each reaction is captivating, as if you can almost hear the thoughts going through his mind. In the one brief moment Willie does speak more than a few words, delivering a thoughtful midnight monologue to Al, it carries even greater weight because of his previous silence. This is the caliber of work all actors should aspire to.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the visuals epitomize American life in the late 1970s. Awash in a sea of chocolate browns, avocado greens, steel grays, and classic starched whites, it was a warm but somewhat antiseptic time. We had survived the Bee Gee's disco era and were on the verge of Reagan's Wall Street '80s. It's fascinating to go back and see how much has changed since then. Warner has done a very nice job cleaning up what was a dingy, dirty print. You'll still see the occasional defect, but for the most part there is little to complain about here. On the other hand, the audio is a disappointing Dolby 1.0 mono track. Granted, this is a film light on dialogue and heavy on imagery, but it still lacks the robust you-are-there presence of a 2.0 surround. Even a handful of directional, street scene effects would have bolstered the presentation considerably.
Very little in the way of bonus material either. The highlight is a seven minute clip from the Dinah! show, featuring Art Carney bantering with Dinah Shore about the film and the requisite clip. You'll also see composer/actor Paul Williams (The Muppet Movie) and a last minute entrance by George Burns. Comes across as more of a time capsule than anything else. Throw in the film's original theatrical trailer, and that about does it.
Going in Style is a small film with a big heart. Lightly scripted, deftly acted, and brilliantly directed, this is a piece of classic Americana. Credit director Marty Brest for giving his talented trio the freedom to banter away in many scenes, providing some of the film's funniest and most real moments. For fans of Brest, Burns, Carney, or Strasberg, this is must have addition to your collection. For everyone else, treat yourself to a rental. You won't be disappointed.
In the briefest deliberation on record, this court finds in favor the defendants. Everyone involved in creating Going in Style is free to go.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Dinah! Show Clip
Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.