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Going in Style

Figuring out the puzzle of director Martin Brest may not be the most urgent of cinematic conundrums, but it's an intriguing exercise for those who admired his long since atrophied gift for smart, idiosyncratic commercial entertainments. Before garnering a reputation for budget-busting self-indulgence rivaled in audacity only by his films' unforgivably bloated run-times — three hours for the infamous Meet Joe Black and 150-plus minutes for the hardly epic Scent of a Woman — Brest really was one of the top mainstream directors in Hollywood, with Midnight Run standing as one of the most polished and beloved buddy movies of the 1980s. But for some reason, Brest earned the kind of "Final Cut" carte blanche granted only to the elite A-list directors, which inspired delusions of auteurism in a filmmaker whose work never possessed significant emotional or physical scope. It's sad, too, because Brest's best movies are imbued with a quiet eloquence that allows them to linger in memory. In fact, he's never topped his debut feature, Going in Style (1979), which one should note while harping on the facile run-time issue, clocks in at a relatively scant 98 minutes. Still, it manages to be more wistfully observant about old age and death than anything Brest has done since. The leisurely paced, light-hearted comedy stars George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg as, respectively, Joe, Al and Willie — three Queens retirees whiling away their winter years doing little more than sitting on a park bench and waiting for their Social Security checks to arrive. Motivated partially by the paltry sums doled out by the government, but mostly out of a yearning for action, Joe cooks up a decidedly improbable plan to break up the oppressive boredom: Why not pull a stick-up? After a bare minimum of resistance, Al and Willie agree to join him, and the trio, blessedly unburdened by desperation or greed, casually goes about plotting to knock over a major Manhattan bank. Though Willie worries about the use of real guns spirited away from Al's sweetly oblivious nephew, Pete (Charles Hallahan), Joe maintains that they must make the robbery look absolutely real if they're to pull it off. Donning Groucho Marx masks, the three geriatrics walk into the bank with barely two days' planning, and walk out with a small fortune. But once the high of the gang's initially successful caper wears off, they're left with the unconsidered problem of what to do with the cash. More importantly, though, they're also unexpectedly confronted with their own onrushing mortality, which it turns out is nearer than they might've expected.

*          *          *

For a first film by a 28-year-old director fresh out of the American Film Institute, Going in Style is a surprisingly contemplative effort marked by a maturity and patience well beyond Brest's years. Though leisurely paced and occasionally digressive, Brest does a wonderful job with his veteran cast, giving them ample space to flesh out their characters. This generosity is especially unusual for Burns, who, even with his Oscar win for the overrated The Sunshine Boys, had never been called on to craft a character that didn't closely mimic his straight-man persona carefully honed over 50 years of television and radio work alongside Gracie Allen. And he responds with a tough, unsentimental performance that easily ranks as his crowning moment on film. Carney is also wonderful as the gregarious Al, who's still got an eye for the ladies even though he's far too long in the tooth to do anything about it. We also see in Al a guy who really hasn't lived much beyond New York City, which makes his trip to Las Vegas all the more poignant. After a wildly successful night at the craps table, Al breathlessly confesses to Joe, "I never dreamt a place like this existed." Carney invests that line with a heartbreakingly heavy mix of exhilaration and regret that piercingly belies his worldly manner. None of this would work nearly as well without Brest's sensitive direction, which smartly plays away from the formulaic potential of the script. As a late entry in a string of '70s geezer comedies, kicked off by The Sunshine Boys and including Burns's Oh, God!, Going in Style stands apart as a genuine rumination on growing old, eschewing the synthetic set-up/gag patter of those other films for something more character driven. And it succeeds largely on account of Brest's intuitiveness, which, for one brief shining moment, justified the studio generosity that has sadly enabled his ear-splittingly counterintuitive latter-day misfires. Warner presents Going in Style in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with serviceable Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a entertaining appearance by Art Carney and George Burns on "Dinah" (7 min.), which offers nostalgia buffs the added pleasure of seeing ubiquitous 1970s talk-show guest Paul Williams appearing alongside them. One suspects that Willie Tyler and Lester were otherwise engaged. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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