In “Going in Style,” the 1979 Hollywood fable of old age in America that’s still remembered with a certain scrappy fondness, George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play brittle old fogies who team up to rob a bank, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the result “a heist movie.” The three hatch their crime as a way to escape loneliness, and to get their juices flowing — to rage against the dying of the light — and the robbery itself is mostly a ramshackle joke, with our cranky stooped codgers barely disguised by Groucho glasses.
The slick new remake of “Going in Style,” on the other hand, really is a heist movie. Our heroes, now played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, team up to rob the Williamsburg Savings Bank in their native Brooklyn, and we see them prepping for the crime in a full-on, split-screen montage of strategic training rituals. They work out a meticulous alibi, mingling with friends during a charity carnival and slipping away just long enough to execute the robbery. And when they finally enter the bank, wearing rubber masks of the Rat Pack (Frank, Dino, and Sammy), they don’t carry themselves like old folks. They could be veteran crooks out of any of the hundreds of heist films made over the last decades. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch the crime — there’s a satisfaction to seeing a heist executed without a hitch — but at the new “Going in Style,” we’re less in the real world than we are in Movie World, a place of processed crime and processed drama.
The movie is a feel-good concoction: not a terrible way to spend 96 minutes, but not an entertainment experience that anyone’s going to remember in 38 years, or maybe even next week. The picture was directed by Zach Braff, who as a filmmaker has only two features to his credit, the soulful romantic cult film “Garden State” (2004) and the navel-gazing SoCal mess “Wish I Was Here” (2014). After the debacle of that last film, Braff, in theory, was right to sign up as a gun for hire on a crowdpleaser like this one. If only he’d brought it a bit more personality and panache! Rocked the boat a little! “Going in Style” coasts along on the testy spiky charms of its leading men, who have 246 years of life on earth between them (Caine is 84, Freeman 79, and Arkin 83), but this is nothing more than an amiable connect-the-dots movie. If anything, it makes the 1979 “Going in Style” look even more audacious, like a comedy about three King Lears.
The new version draws on up-to-the-minute themes of economic outrage, but in a way that’s so cautious and market-tested it’s as if the filmmakers had pushed a button marked “add incendiary topical issue here.” Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) are old pals who toiled together for decades at the Wechsler Steel Co. and are now living on comfortable — if modest — pensions. Joe is putting up his divorced daughter and granddaughter, so that they can save for college; Willie and Albert are roommates who have shared a house for 25 years. But their lives come tumbling down when Wechsler, following a corporate merger, ships its manufacturing overseas and dissolves its pension fund.
There’s more than enough ripped-from-the-news material here to root “Going in Style” in the current moment, but one of the problems with the movie is that by checking off these issues, the film acts as if it’s done its dramatic work. What it doesn’t do is give the characters an individualized sense of having emerged from the past. They’re just Grumpy Old Sitcom Men.
But often irresistible ones. Caine is the star who makes a slightly deeper impression. His Joe is the group’s ringleader, and that’s because he has had to endure a double scandal: In addition to the trashing of his pension (which, if our government were less tethered to corporate money, would be unambiguously illegal), he got suckered by the bank into a radically adjustable mortgage, which has shot up to the point that he’s about to lose his home. Caine, who has done many middling movies but isn’t capable of phoning in a performance even when he’s trying to, reacts to all of this with a witty cold anger that is only heightened by age. Freeman, whose character is more or less defined by his need for a kidney transplant, is the mellow one, and Arkin, as the whistling-past-the-gallows Albert, seems the most hopeless — at least, until he gets caught up in a flirtation with Annie, played by Ann-Margret, who at 75 still has her extraordinary saucy radiance. Let’s call their romance a senior-citizen fairy tale.
Who is the audience for “Going in Style”? Adults, older or not, who want to see a caper movie pitched to the bucket-list set. Yet it’s worth recalling that in 1979, at least one member of the cast of “Going in Style” — Burns — was in the midst of a career revival that straddled all demos. (That same year, he costarred with Brooke Shields in “Just You and Me, Kid.”) Caine, Freeman, and Arkin are actors who long ago proved that they transcend age. But the “Going in Style” remake is an example of how “likable” prefab filmmaking can shoot itself in the foot. The movie will probably find a modest audience for a weekend or two, but it could have been so much bigger if it didn’t reduce senior citizens to sympathetic data cards. If it truly gave us something to see.