“Stand Up Guys”: Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Published on December 15th, 2012 | by James T. Sheridan


“Stand Up Guys” is now showing at Film Society of Lincoln Center

Running time: 95 minutes;Rated R

Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Christopher Walken team up in “Stand Up Guys,” a new film from director Fisher Stevens that shakes off its occasional staleness and offers genuine fun through the chemistry of old guys behaving badly. Val (Pacino) returns to his old neighborhood after serving a twenty-eight year prison sentence, and his friend Doc (Walken) picks him up at the gate. In prison, Val kept his mouth shut, and now he’s ready to party, making up for lost time. Doc feels conflicted between his loyalty to his friend and his unfortunate obligations to a gangster. Doc must decide whether or not to betray his friend. He ushers Val through one long extended night of booze, debauchery, and dancing. Along the way, Hirsch (a punchy Arkin who appears to be having the most fun), the third member of their former gang, must be liberated from a retirement home and enlisted to drive them. The late-night odyssey includes beautiful women, drugs and alcohol, a stolen car, a dead body, a few fights, and many, many erection jokes.

Noah Haidle’s script takes a while to get moving, getting stuck at a bordello in early scenes, and delivering inconsistent laughs. A hospital scene feels gratuitous and stale. At times, Stevens’s camera lingers excessively, hinting that a minor character is not what he or she seems. There is a terribly grotesque subplot, involving a woman locked in a car trunk, with a disturbing payoff that trivializes a vicious act. Its purpose is to contrast the code of the old gangsters with the nihilism of the modern criminals. A fair point, maybe. I just wish that Haidle and Stevens had figured out a way to convey this idea without resorting to brutality—and then smiling about it.

Stevens uses blues music and a muted color palette, in keeping with the film’s late-night, early-morning structure. Val and Doc keep wandering the same streets and keep returning to the same places, living out their existential dilemma. When a decision is finally made, Fisher shoots the men striding out into brilliant sunlight, delivering a dynamite closing shot. The hangdog, weathered chemistry of Walken and Pacino drives this film. Walken’s pants ride a little high, and he moves a little slow. His performance emphasizes Doc’s polite manner, and Walken is very funny. Pacino dials his performance down and genuinely seems to be having fun, riffing off his “Scarface” and “Scent of a Woman” personas. It’s his best, most relaxed performance in years. Stevens knows that he has gold in the faces of these two actors and shoots a constant stream of close-ups of their grizzled, haunted visages. Stevens wisely allows these two master actors sufficient time to sit at a table and talk at length.

With its ticking-clock structure and rough camaraderie, “Stand Up Guys” has both warmth and tension. “They say we die twice,” Val offers at a quiet moment. “Once when the breath leaves our body, and once when the last person we know says our name.” At its core, “Stand Up Guys” is about aging friendship and loyalty. Fisher Stevens has crafted an entertaining film built on believable chemistry between two master actors that pushes past its momentary lapses.

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About the Author

is a graduate of Kenyon College, and a teacher and writer in Houston, Texas.

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