Directed by: Zach Braff
Starring: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin
Theodore Melfi isn’t the best screenwriter in Hollywood right now, but he may be the luckiest. Last year, audiences flocked to “Hidden Figures,” desperate for an antidote to the depressing news cycle, and they found it in that movie’s unabashed feel-good charm. Melfi’s script, easily the worst thing about that movie, was assumed to be an important piece of work simply by association, and Melfi rode on coattails all the way to an Oscar nomination.
From left, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine star in “Going in Style.” (Courtesy photo)
Now, with his new geriatric-buddy-heist script “Going in Style,” which follows the always popular trend of Average Joes sticking it to banks and corporations, Melfi has gotten lucky again. Here, an overqualified cast brings a surprising amount of flair and subtlety to the film, making it far better than it could (or should) have been. If not an exceptional film, it’s a textbook case study of how to make a straightforward Hollywood movie, a film-school lesson in crowd-pleasing.
First, take a familiar plot: a bank robbery. Already you have built-in suspense, stakes, and probably a mid-movie montage set to uptempo jazz wherein the leads carry out their preparations while narrating what they’re doing. Second, add a twist to the formula: They’re old men! They can’t move so nimbly, so you have complications that you can spend the movie’s second act addressing, also probably in montage form.
Next, throw in seemingly insignificant symbols—for instance, a tattoo, a wristwatch, a dog, a medical condition, and so on—and focus on each one just enough that we know they’ll all come back in the movie’s third act. Be economical, don’t make any detail unimportant, and trim all the fat.
OK, now put together $25 million, cast a trio of Oscar winners in the I’ll-do-anything phase of their careers, and get a director attached whose name will be recognizable but not a distraction, who has some talent but won’t try to turn this into an art film. Zach Braff will do. Fill out the cast with cameos, ranging from the “what’s he up to?” types (Christopher Lloyd) to the “I know I’ve seen that actor in something” types (Peter Serafinowicz). Bonus points if you can get Ann-Margret to play a flirty grocer.
From left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin in a scene from “Going in Style.” (Courtesy photo)
Now go make your movie! Don’t worry about shot composure—who are you, Wes Anderson? Throw in some shifting split screens in editing (this is a heist movie, after all) and get a score composer who thinks it’s still the mid-1990s. When it’s all done, go back and make sure you remembered to include a scene where one character lays a blanket on another, sleeping character. Everything there? Great!
Maybe you think I’m being too cynical. It’s possible, of course, for a formulaic movie to have redeeming qualities (how do you think “Argo” won Best Picture?), and I’d be remiss to ignore those elements of “Going in Style.” Melfi’s script, for example, despite its foreseeable twists and turns, is an improvement upon the work he did on “Hidden Figures.” His elderly characters speak with a bluntness that rings true, and running gags and inside jokes afford actors in even the smallest roles room to play with their characters. Under Braff’s (“Wish I Was Here”) playful direction, that’s exactly what they do.
More than anything Melfi or Braff does, though, the performances of the film’s leads save the movie again and again. Alan Arkin (“Argo”) stands out as the cantankerous Albert, the contrarian who revels in his misanthropy. Morgan Freeman (“The Shawshank Redemption”) and Michael Caine (“The Dark Knight”) also thrive in their roles, imbuing their characters with a balance of grandfatherly calm and righteous anger at the indignities they’re forced to suffer because of their financial situations. What could have felt heavy-handed and expository instead feels buoyant and inviting.
It’s not perfect, of course—there’s an awfully rosy-hued subplot involving a deadbeat dad returning to his family and more deus ex machina than you can rend your clothes at—but in the end, this film does what it set out to do. It’s entertaining and straightforward, and you can’t blame it for not aspiring to more than that. There’s a limit to how much you can do with a concept like “Going in Style,” and this cast and crew have hit it, which is as much of an accomplishment as they could have hoped to achieve.
Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate,
lives and works in Denver, Colorado.