Stand Up Guys is an action vehicle for three of the greatest actors of our time: Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin. With these names alone attached to a picture, who needs a story? And it’s a good thing, because director Fisher Stevens certainly stands the audience up in that respect.
Fisher Stevens has been a Hollywood name to be reckoned with for quite a few years now, recently gaining much deserved accolades from his peers for his work in producing the uncompromising foray into the slaughter of oceanic animals in the compelling documentary, The Cove. Those familiar with him too, will take note he was an actor much before his time as a filmmaker, usually in comedic roles. It was doing his time with comedy, that ultimately releases his relentless and awkward humor into the films he now directs. But when comedians direct, it’s usually a hit or miss target practice, and Stevens’ newest film,Stand Up Guys is a pure example of that.
People of all ages (that are able to get into an R-rated movie) will flock to the theaters to see Pacino, Walken, and Arkin (geniuses) work their magic, and with each other no less. But Stevens is ambitious, and it seems he really wanted to add a little something-something to the mix, and what you ultimately get, is, like the title, stood up.
It’s not that Stevens is careless as a director, but clearly some things have to be considered. The story concerns itself with Valentino, preferably called “Val” (Pacino, who is powerful, campy, fun as ever), who is being released from prison after 28 years, being incarcerated for refusing to name his colleagues in a, shall we say, ‘situation’. His best friend, Doc (Walken, in his usual straight-forward prowess) is there to see his release, but is also harboring a bit of a secret. It seems he has been assigned by an old boss called Claphands (veteran actor Mark Margolis), to terminate Val, who had accidentally shot his only son in the very tussle that landed Val in the clink in the first place. This predictably leads to playful tension between Doc and Val, and soon they decide to make a night of their old hijinks. So they gather the third member of their trio, Hirsch (delightfully spunked by Arkin), and the three are off!
The film attempts to show these men reconciling their aging and life lessons, but it comes off more like a compound joke that is both wasted on the three leading talents, and also intentionally plays to the younger, Twitter generation. That’s where Steven’s comedic credentials are questioned. The situations that the three leads (purposefully) get into show their humane sides, and Stevens gloriously paints this with subtle sentiment. But no sooner are these moments finished, that a tactless, modern metta joke enters out of stage left field. This divides the story and it’s direction, and confuses the viewer as to what the tone of the story is supposed to be.
The story is not driven by the leads alone, however. Juliana Margulies (as Alan Arkin’s daughter, ironically an ER Nurse!) does her best with an almost nonsensical role. Margulies is one terrific actress, and to see her rehash ‘Nurse Carol Hathaway’ so poorly is a shame. Tough stuff Vanessa Ferlito (as a rape victim, whom these three help avenge) holds her own honorably against the three leads, and it’s good to see her strutting her stuff with pros like these. She’s really terrific and has been since splashing on the scene in Quintin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Hopefully this film will gain her more exposure, if nothing else.
But still, we are faced with the dilemma of what the film offers its leads and its audience? Furthermore, why is Fisher, who has an Academy Award to his name, putting such modern slosh attitude to what could be a kick-butt movie experience?
Stevens seems to be selling out for a greater corporate image of his directing capabilities. Are jokes made at the three leads’ age or sexual competence really that funny? Maybe they would be, if they didn’t have that condescending tilt to them, showing the aging process to be unglamorous and depressing. A story about a second coming of age could be showcasing the wisdom and truths of that process. Honestly, if Stevens had gone the route of the latter, it would not have changed the story, nor would any of the supporting characters or their story lines been affected either.
While we do manage to care about these characters (a testament to great actors), we only get a glimpse of what these men of danger are truly capable of. Instead, the audience is left with a wanting desire for the films that made these Hollywood legends in the first place: Walken in The Deer Hunter, Dogs of War, or Biloxi Blues; Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All, or Serpico; Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, Catch 22 or The 7% Solution. Those were characters, good or bad, who had a story.
Fisher Stevens has a real knack for comedy as an actor, but this film doesn’t seem to be a laughing matter. For a film starring Walken, Pacino, and Arkin, we the audience are indeed stood up for the gag!
Stand Up Guys opens Feb. 1st, watch the trailer.