By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
With the 2017 remake now in release, hopefully it will bring people’s attention to the 1979 original, which for some reason is still unknown to many movie goers. Far more somber and poignant than the wrongheaded redux, it treats its characters and the lives they lead with respect, providing remarkable insight to an age group that society would prefer to sweep under the carpet.
The story centres on Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney), and Willie (Lee Strasberg), three elderly men who share a small apartment in Queens, New York. Living on a pension that barely covers living expenses, the three have settled into a daily routine that is largely devoid of life’s pleasures, as if they are just sitting around waiting to die.
One morning during their regular visit to the local park, Joe reads about a bank robbery, one where the assailants managed to avoid capture. Sick of just going through the motions every day, always hoping there is enough in each pension cheque to pay for it, Joe suggests that they rob a bank themselves. If the trio succeed, they’ll have enough money to see out the rest of their days; fail, and secure lodgings await them, with a back-up of pension money in their accounts if the would-be criminals do make parole. Al is immediately in, but Willie takes some convincing before he says yes. Will these guys pull off the perfect heist, or will they instead go in style?
Going in Style is a film that beautifully weaves its tones and emotions. Advertised primarily as a comedy, it does deliver a number of laughs, with the three leads all playing off each other wonderfully. Underneath the humour however is something darker and more melancholy, looking at a forgotten section of the community who have to survive on the bare minimum, finding it difficult to enjoy their twilight years in the way they deserve. Seeing these three come to life by concentrating on a plan which seems completely implausible, astutely conveys both the absurd and the despondent.
All three leads are perfectly cast. Burns (The Sunshine Boys, Oh God!, 18 Again), known for his hilarious stand-up work and light-hearted film roles, is quite the revelation here, delivering a remarkably measured performance that especially hits home in the second half. Carney (The Honeymooners TV series, House Calls, Firestarter) is his typically exuberant self, full of kind-hearted bluster that is needed to keep the group focused before the big day. Strasberg (The Godfather Part II, …And Justice For All) is delightful as Willie, who is forever worrying about what could go wrong. There is also fine support from Charles Hallahan (The Thing, Pale Rider, Silkwood) and Pamela Payton-Wright (Ironweed, In Dreams).
The film was a major achievement for writer/director Martin Brest, who was only 28 at the time, and his perceptive view of the elderly is extraordinary. Brest would go on to direct the box-office smash Beverly Hills Cop (1984), the brilliant Midnight Run (1988), starring Robert De Niro, Scent of a Woman (1992), where Al Pacino finally won his Oscar for Best Actor, and Meet Joe Black (1998), an odd supernatural drama with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. Going in Style is still his most mature work to date.
Going in Style is an absolute gem, one that is ripe for rediscovery. With Zach Braff’s new version unfortunately displaying how everything can go decidedly pear-shaped, Martin Brest and company conversely show viewers what happens when everything works like a charm.