I spent the night before I saw Stand Up Guys working, for about seven hours non-stop, on the massive bibliography for an upcoming film-based book I will soon be publishing. One effect of this monotonous academic endurance run was that I became extremely familiar with various citation forms for films, and spent much of the night pondering why writers are not commonly part of such reference formats. I fully appreciate the difficulty in pinpointing what, exactly, a film citation should look like, given that movies are rarely created with the level of authorial precision a book enjoys, but ignoring the writer seems, in most cases, like a fairly large gap in the cinematic equation.
Case in point: Stand Up Guys is a bad-to-mediocre movie filled with praise-worthy elements that fails almost entirely by virtue of its tedious screenplay. Al Pacino and Christopher Walken give excellent Al Pacino and Christopher Walken performances. Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, and Mark Margolis do effective work with what little they are given. The film is sharply directed by Fisher Stevens. Michael Grady’s cinematography is warm, effective, and occasionally evocative. Lyle Workman’s music is solid, and the song Jon Bon Jovi contributed to the soundtrack is used effectively.
All the pieces are in place for Stand Up Guys – which, as a point of record, is grammatically deficient without a hyphen – to offer a pleasing, if not revelatory, experience. Yet Noah Haidle’s screenplay is so incredibly lacking, so stilted, slight, derivative, and tonally awkward that the film has no chance of being good. No matter what quality of work the other cast and crew members turn in, this is a case where the writing is the only element that matters, for Haidle has crafted a hopelessly rickety foundation that corrodes everything it touches.
It is a tremendous shame. I, for one, would be utterly overjoyed to watch Pacino and Walken, two of the most interesting actors of their generation, share in a strong cinematic outing. Walken remains a legitimately great actor capable of tremendous work – see last year’s Seven Psychopaths or A Late Quartet for immediate examples – and while Pacino has long since become an absolute ham, there is a certain charm – and definite entertainment value – in his gravelly-voiced shtick.
Pairing these two is a welcome and long-overdue no-brainer, and to its credit, Stand Up Guys does feature a compelling premise that suits their respective talents. Valentine (Pacino) has just ended a 28-year prison stint, and Doc (Walken), his best friend and former partner-in-crime, has been strong-armed by a local crime boss into killing Valentine before the day is out. There is dramatic potential there, and the absolute smartest decision Haidle makes is to let Doc’s secret out early on. Valentine figures out what his best friend is up to after only a few scenes, and instead of a story about long-separated friends trying to play one another, Stand Up Guys instead becomes a story about two deadbeat criminals sharing one last night of sin before dawn puts one of them out of commission for good.
It’s a sharp set-up, one that allows Pacino to play his unrepentant sleaze of a character with sad, shaggy-dog charisma, while also enabling Walken to wear Doc’s guilt and remorse on his sleeves. The two play their characters well, and share an authentic, casual chemistry that could work beautifully in a better, more significant context.
But the script really is a mess from top to bottom, taking some solid narrative ideas and burying them under a mountain of terrible dialogue, bad jokes, and overly episodic storytelling. Haidle has no handle whatsoever on bringing his characters to life through speech, and while his writing attempts to evoke a snappy, stylistic tenor akin to Elmore Leonard or Quentin Tarantino, it mostly just falls flat in every instance, too stilted and self-conscious to make any sort of meaningful impact. The film is primarily comedic, but Haidle also fails at generating substantial laughs, with the biggest comic set piece revolving around Pacino’s character struggling to get an erection – Academy-Award-winning star of The Godfather, ladies and gentleman – and the only decent one-liner stolen wholesale from They Live and dozens of other imitators.
Tone and pace are constant struggles for the film throughout, with the stop-start storytelling failing to create any sense of significant forward momentum. The third act is an improvement over the preceding material, as the story at least refocuses on its character-based roots, and apart from the aforementioned erectile dysfunction saga and a spectacularly awful funeral sequence midway through, little of the movie is oppressively terrible. But the ending is a cheap and easy let-down that fails to live up to earlier narrative convictions, and the experience as a whole is so nondescript that one may practically forget the movie while watching.