Starring: George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg
Written and Directed by: Martin Brest
Story by: Edward Cannon
Running Time: 1hr 44mins
WINNER – Venice Film Festival: Pasinetti Award – Best Actor (George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg)
NOMINEE – Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion (Martin Brest)
When Joe (George Burns) is looking through his old photos and other memorabilia, he looks at a photo of a young couple, presumably Joe and his wife and it makes him start to cry. The photo is actually a picture of Burns and his real (late) wife and legendary stage partner Gracie Allen. – IMDB
The film (Going in Style) gives us, I think, a nice sense of what it’s like to be old in America… – Gene Siskel – Film Critic
Joe: I’m sick of this shit.
Al: Yeah, but it beats gettin’ hit in the head with a dull ax.
Joe: Yeah? I wonder about that.
When sitting down to watch the original 1979 version of GOING IN STYLE, you must forget everything you think you know about the film. Forget all the expectations that the studio’s marketing team has placed in your head. The trailer calls it “A comedy in the first degree” and the cast list consists of two lead actors (George Burns & Art Carney) known primarily for their comedic abilities. Also, the poster features cartoon versions of the three leads wearing Groucho Marx-style masks, while the plot presented is of three elderly men planning to rob a bank. All of this sets the viewer up for an outrageous comedy of sorts, which is, unfortunately, a false assessment of the film’s tone and your expectations of such could easily lead to a disappointing experience. My advice to everyone is simple. As you settle in to watch the story unfold, just sit back and let the film introduce itself to you on its own terms. Ultimately, GOING IN STYLE is more of a heartfelt drama than a laugh-out-loud comedy because the film’s writer/director, Martin Brest, decided to approach the story in a very realistic way. Moving away from the slapstick tone the poster suggests gives the movie and the characters we’re introduced to a lot more depth, allowing the film an opportunity to deliver a genuinely entertaining and emotionally moving experience.
The story centers itself around three senior citizens, Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg). They are all over seventy and live together in a small New York apartment. Barely getting by on their social security check, everything in life has become a little too routine. We witness the three men spending their time sitting on a park bench watching the people around them while Willie feeds the pigeons. It’s almost as if life has already passed them by and the three men are just living a mediocre existence as they wait to die. That is until one-day Joe decides he has had enough. He tells Al and Willie, “If I got to spend another day doing nothing but sitting around in that park looking at them ugly kids, I’m going to go nuts.” It turns out that Joe has a plan to bring some excitement back to their life and he suggests to his two friends that they all rob a bank.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight – this is NOT a heist movie. Yes, a bank robbery occurs, but it is not the story’s centerpiece. The scene that the viewers may expect to be the climactic moment of the film is actually over at about the 39-minute mark and there is still almost an hour of the film’s running time remaining. Two-time Oscar-nominated writer/director Martin Brest (MIDNIGHT RUN, SCENT OF A WOMAN) stages the robbery in less than 4 minutes and it’s not that spectacular a scene. It works though, because the film isn’t about the heist. The robbery is only a plot element used to move the real story forward. GOING IN STYLE is a serious character piece about three men who want a little more excitement in their life. Brest treats the elderly characters with a lot of respect. Joe, Al and Willie may be old, but that doesn’t mean that their life is over and the viewer is never given a reason to pity them. The film takes its time revealing itself, giving viewers the appropriate amount of time to get to know these characters as real people that they can both care about and root for. Both as a director and writer, Brest effectively infuses the story with the right amount of sentimentality to keep viewers emotionally interested while also giving us enough humor to keep a smile on our faces.
The real heart of the film comes from the incredible cast. Burns (OH, GOD!), Carney (THE HONEYMOONERS) and Strasburg (THE GODFATHER: PART II) bring an honest realism to the three men’s relationship. As they walk down the street arguing about the electrical bill or question each other about whether or not to shave before the heist, everything feels very natural as the actors themselves seem just as comfortable with each other as the characters do.
Separately they infuse some real individuality into their roles as well. Each character goes through life with a different attitude and the heist itself has a different meaning to each man. Burns underplays his part to perfection as he gives one of the most touching performances of his career. His character, Joe, is genuinely bored with life and is looking for a reason to get up in the morning. The money from the robbery isn’t something that he needs, but it’s the act of planning and going through with the theft that’s important. At one point Willie asks Joe if he thinks the plan is going to work and Joe replies, “What does it matter? I feel like I’m forty again.”
On the other hand, Carney is the one who brings a subtle humor to the story. His character Al is always trying to bring a little fun to the day. He sings a song while doing the dishes, checks out the women that pass him on the city sidewalk and dances in front of a small street band. Unlike the other two, Al has family nearby and he isn’t as lost as Joe and Willie. He doesn’t need the heist to feel better about his life. To him, it just seems like a better way to enjoy time with his friends rather than sitting around a park all day.
Finally, there’s Strasburg as Willie. Not a big celebrity like Burns and Carney, Strasberg is better known as a top acting coach and though his character has the least amount of screen time, he has an infectious character arc. Willie is a man who’s just floating through life, going with the flow. At first, he thinks his friends are crazy for wanting to rob a bank, but as they begin the planning phase, Willie’s attitude begins to slowly change. After scoping out a bank in the city, the three men walk down the street and we see a spring appear in Willie’s step and he’s also the one who seems to be having the most fun as they run for a subway train after the robbery is over.
The three actors are at their best playing the film’s leads and their performances are the real driving force that elevates the movie to another level.
One last note – Without giving away any spoilers, the conclusions that the film eventually leads each character towards are both brave and emotional. Unlike anything that studio films today would dare do (just check out the very mediocre 2017 remake and you will understand what I mean.) the film stays true to its realistic tone and every moment that concludes each character’s story is well deserved and will leave the viewer exactly where they need to be emotionally as the credits roll.
When all is said and done GOING IN STYLE may have been Martin Brest’s sophomore effort, but even early in his career he showed a natural ability as a filmmaker (Yes, I know everyone’s feelings towards GIGLI, but that’s just one film in an otherwise impressive career). The movie achieves a rare balance of drama, sentimentality and humor, remaining a small personal story with great performances that generate very honest emotions throughout.
Watch GOING IN STYLE
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