'Going in Style': Film Review

Don’t count on style or substance.

In a remake of a 1979 comedy, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin play struggling retirees who turn to larceny.

It revolves around a bank heist, but the real crime in Going in Style is its waste of acting talent. Updating the premise of a nearly 40-year-old film, screenwriter Theodore Melfi and director Zach Braff, in his third stint at the feature helm, drum up a wan comedy about a trio of former factory workers who take matters into their own hands after their pensions go up in smoke. Though the effortless charm and goodwill of topliners Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and especially Alan Arkin keep things watchable, that’s not enough to redeem the clunky mix of broad-strokes comedy and perfunctory social commentary (including an allusion to Sean Spicer, perhaps tagged on late in production). 

Trading dry humor and pathos for sitcom beats and sentimentality, this adaptation of Martin Brest’s 1979 film (based on a short story by Edward Cannon and starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) turns a quiet, character-driven piece into a run-of-the-mill collection of high jinks, oldster style. The cast is certain to be a draw as the film goes head-to-head against the Smurfs’ latest big-screen adventure, though in this case live action is no guarantee of more dimension. 

Caine plays long-retired plant worker Joe, whose sad shuffle into a cavernous, heartless bank opens the film on a wry note, only to devolve into a cartoonish exchange with a bank officer played by Josh Pais, very badly served in the scene, and with worse to come. Joe whiles away his days with former co-workers Willie (Freeman) and Al (Arkin) in diners and New York City parks. Until they lose their pensions to corporate maneuvers, the trio try not to burden one another with their troubles; in a particularly unconvincing subplot, Willie is hiding a dire medical condition from everyone. 

After witnessing a bank robbery — and being spared by the socially conscious thief — Joe persuades his pals that a heist is the solution to their financial straits. The glancingly topical setup is quickly lost in the genre mechanics of how to get the job done. Through Joe’s “lowlife” ex-son-in-law (Peter Serafinowicz), the robbers-in-training find a heist consultant (John Ortiz), who also happens to rescue cute animals. 

Braff and Melfi (Hidden Figures) favor the adorable over the trenchant, and so the nods to brutal economic realities and electoral rage give way to one “ain’t those codgers something” bit after another. (And a key plot point hinges, without the slightest believability, on an exceptionally adorable little girl, played by Annabelle Chow.) The sweet comic slant might not be a problem if the bits were funnier or had zing, but under Braff’s utilitarian direction, most of the comedy is strained and flat. He and cinematographer Rodney Charters inject some much-needed visual pizazz with a few montage-y split-screen sequences. 

An early scene on a New York park bench is the most overt reference to the earlier film, although it’s unfortunately “enlivened” by Christopher Lloyd’s dementia shtick, which becomes a running joke of sorts. No one in the supporting cast fares particularly well, although Kenan Thompson, as a supermarket manager, has a way with some of the screenplay’s better quips, and gets in and out unscathed. Matt Dillon scowls and talks tough as an FBI agent, while Joey King has little to do in the role of Joe’s 14-year-old granddaughter, and the wonderful Maria Dizzia is utterly wasted as his daughter. 

Arkin notably escapes the twinkly routine that substitutes for substance in Caine and Freeman’s roles. He’s also the only convincing blue-collar New Yorker in the bunch. If anyone’s going in style, it’s Arkin’s Al, who snarls and kvetches with elegant directness, and whose talents include cooking and jazz saxophone. He also hooks up with the fetching supermarket employee Annie (Ann-Margret) who’s been coming on to him. Though the screenplay’s idea of flirtatious badinage is Annie cooing over a package of chicken that “breasts are better than thighs,” it’s a kick to see Ann-Margret and Arkin side by side. 

Significantly, Al, the movie’s most rounded character, isn’t saddled with paper-deep family subplots, as are his partners in crime — story threads that are as superficial as most of the proceedings, and as obvious as Rob Simonsen’s button-pushing score.

Directing his first major studio comedy, Braff creates a few bursts of brightness, and allows the occasional darker moment to play out without rushing for a punchline, as when the men calculate how many more years they expect to live. His affection for the three leads is evident. But far more is going on in their gazes and body language than in the tired movie surrounding them.

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, De Line Pictures
Cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, John Ortiz, 
Peter SerafinowiczJoey King, Kenan Thompson, Matt Dillon, Christopher Lloyd,  Josh Pais, Maria Dizzia, Anthony Chisholm, Annabelle Chow
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Zach Braff

Screenwriter: Theodore Melfi, based on the story by Edward Cannon
Producer: Donald De Line
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Samuel J. Brown, Michael Disco, Steven Mnuchin, Andrew Haas, Jonathan McCoy, Tony Bill, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Rodney Charters
Production designer: Anne Ross
Costume designer: Gary Jones
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Avy Kaufman

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes