A pleasant hangout session for its stars, and those who love them, the remake of the bittersweet 1979 comedy "Going in Style" cheers things up for early 21st-century audiences and allows its Golden Boys ensemble a measure of dignity alongside the slapstick, pathos and wish fulfillment. If that sounds like a qualified endorsement, you're reading me loud and clear.
Director Zach Braff, best known for "Scrubs," works from a script by Theodore Melfi ("St. Vincent," "Hidden Figures"). With their approximately $45,000 annual steel mill pensions frozen and presumed lost, owing to manufacturing moving to Vietnam, retirees Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Al (Alan Arkin) are saddled with money problems in the extreme. (Millions may watch "Going in Style" and, at least for a moment, think: Must be nice to have a pension to lose.) During a testy meeting with his local loan officer about an imminent home foreclosure, Joe witnesses a deft, bloodless bank robbery and gets an idea. Why not go gangster himself and pull off his own heist, with the help of his pals?
"Going in Style" spins forward, as the not-so-terrible trio first attempts some medium-weight shoplifting (Ann-Margret pops in as the grocery store employee with the hots for Al). With the help of a local pet store owner (John Ortiz), they montage their way through a month's worth of robbery planning. Christopher Lloyd, among other character actors, appears as a delusional regular at the VFW hall where the gang hangs out, dreaming of a better third act than the one fate, and corporate America, has dealt them.
I hadn't seen writer-director Martin Brest's original "Going in Style" since it came out nearly 40 years ago, and a revisit was frankly astonishing. Brest had the sense, the taste and the temperament to allow George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg to play their scenes, many of them achingly sad, at a relaxed tempo. There's hardly any rim-shot humor or concessions to perceived audience taste circa '79.
Braff's remake is a lot pushier, and more determinedly ingratiating. Arkin gets the most from the material, simply by not falling prey to the obvious rhythms in Melfi's screenplay. Too often the movie ignores what it has right in the foreground, in its favor. There's an Arkin/Ann-Margret duet on "Hallelujah I Love Her So" that gets lost in a chaotically edited action sequence, for example. Braff's approach is the bigger-equals-funnier mode, and while that mode has its commercial upside, the downside is a delightful hambone such as Lloyd working 200 percent harder than needed.
The same cannot be said of the stars. Caine, Freeman and Arkin redeem a lot of the movie, and interesting faces keep turning up, such as Matt Dillon (as a dumb/smart hybrid of an FBI agent), Joey King (as Joe's granddaughter) and Maria Dizzia (too-briefly seen as Joe's daughter). Freeman is now 79; Arkin, 83; Caine, 84. Collectively these performers have learned more about what works with an audience, and how to serve a character, than can be measured. "Going in Style" stays in the safe zone every second, nervous about risking any audience discomfort, as opposed to Brest's quietly nervy ode to old age and its discontents. Times change. If Braff's film is a hit, it'll be because the three headliners have more or less refused to change with them.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Going in Style" — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for drug content, language and some suggestive material)
Running time: 1:36
Opens: Thursday evening