Some bad movies trigger swells of anger and outrage, while others prompt industrial-grade snark and scorn. And then there are leaden clunkers like “Just Getting Started” that provoke an ineffable sense of sadness as one considers how much time, money and talent has been squandered on something so thoroughly useless. Unduly protracted, clumsily contrived and dreadfully unamusing, this misbegotten project brings out the worst in all parties involved; even top-billed Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones and Rene Russo do little more than embarrass themselves here. It’s altogether apt that the film’s pro-forma theatrical exposure is a pre-Christmas dump (without, unsurprisingly, pre-release screenings for critics).
Freeman plays Duke, resident manager at Villa Capri, a Palm Springs retirement community where he breezily presides as equal parts cock of the walk and fox in the henhouse. To underscore Duke’s status as catnip for ladies of a certain age, writer-director Ron Shelton — who has come a very, very long way from the likes of “Bull Durham,” “Blaze” and “Tin Cup” — kicks off the proceedings with a jaw-droppingly lame sequence in which the silver-tongued devil trades suggestive quips with hot-to-trot retirees played by Glenne Headly and Sheryl Lee Ralph. It’s Yuletide season, so the characters are inspired to drop double entendres about “flocking trees” and … No, never mind, I’ll spare you the rest. Suffice it to say that, when the sequence concludes, you may find it difficult to unclench yourself from a discomforted cringe.
Unfortunately, things soon go further downhill. Jones arrives on the scene as Leo, a new community resident who makes vague references to a colorful backstory, possibly as a military or law-enforcement operative, and riles Duke by repeatedly (and successfully) challenging him at poker, golf and lady-chasing. Both men set their sights on Suzie (Russo), a corporate hatchet-woman assigned to investigate Duke’s blithely casual approach to standard business procedures while operating Villa Capri. Leo takes the early lead in the race to winning her affections, but Duke doggedly continues his own pursuit — until he is distracted by attempts on his life by perhaps persons unknown from his checkered past.
The late, great film critic Stanley Kauffmann once expressed his admiration for seasoned professionals who doubtless knew early on when they were stuck in a stinker, yet got out of bed every morning and arrived on the set to do their best. But it’s difficult to muster a similar esteem for the lead players here, given their tendency to try too hard, too obviously, to harvest laughs, or at least mild chuckles, from the barren ground Shelton has provided them. At best, they elicit, though only sporadically, a melancholy sympathy born of lingering respect for their previous work.
It should be noted, by the way, that “Just Getting Started” features one of the final performances by Headly, who passed away earlier this year. And that’s very sad, too.