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Non-Review Review: Last Vegas

Last Vegas is a curious blend. On a purely practical level, it’s a genre hybrid that was bound to happen. Audiences love the “boys behaving badly” narratives that have been revitalised by The Hangover; indeed, that unlikely hit was popular enough to spawn a trilogy. Recent years have also seen audiences flock to films involving older performers, the cynically-described “grey dollar” that turned The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into such a runaway success, but has been bubbling away in the background with films like Red or The Bucket List.

So, from a studio’s perspective, combining these two successful genres was a bit of a no-brainer. However, the two genres are also somewhat opposed to one another. The Hangover and its string of imitators pride themselves on their immaturity and their irreverence. There’s nothing that is off limits or out-of-bounds to those reckless young turks, no sacred cows that can’t be slaughtered, no sense of good taste that can’t be ignored completely in pursuit of the next laugh.

In contrast, films banking on elderly stars to draw aging audiences are built around reverence. Isn’t it nice to have films that don’t marginalise and sideline elderly performers? Isn’t it great to give people like Morgan Freeman or Robert DeNiro their due? In a way, the genre is built around reverence.

That puts Last Vegas in a very weird place, where it’s constantly trying to go far enough that it can pass as an irreverent “boys on vacation” comedy, but also trying to remain courteous enough and respectful enough of its leads that it won’t alienate viewers who just want to hang out with Douglas, DeNiro, Freeman and Kline. The result is predictably unsatisfying.

Putting their cards on the table...

Putting their cards on the table…

You can see this internal friction at work in countless scenes throughout Last Vegas, as it tries to balance the sort of kooky “anything can happen” comedy with a dutiful respect for its elders. There’s a sense the movie is trying to walk the line, treading a needle between those two lucrative audiences that the executives are trying to overlap. So, by all means, have a man thrust his privates into Robert DeNiro’s face, but be sure that Morgan Freeman’s character gets to reconnect with his son.

So the film tries to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of its leads, while still remaining respectful and dignified. At one point Kevin Kline’s character jokes about where Michael Douglas procured his full head of hair. (Hint: It’s not his chest.) At another point, Morgan Freeman’s character discovers the thrill of a Red Bull and Vodka (or a “Red Ball Vodka”) in a gag that barely works because of Freeman’s charisma. There’s also suitably generic slapstick, involving various characters getting thrown into water features.

Badass grampa...

Bad grampa…

However, we also get lots of weird fawning over the leads – with two minor younger characters learning the meaning of life from our grizzled performers. One of those two characters is won over by the skill with which these four older gentlemen bully a young idiot. Sure, that character is annoying, but he’s presented as so comically stupid that our leads seem mean-spirited to take advantage of him in that way, even if they occasionally let him have a beer or give him some money at the end.

This leads to a bizarre difficulty with tone that recurs throughout the film. Silly, juvenile and gross out comedy is hardly the height of wit, but at least it would be a bold move in a feature built around four iconic screen actors. It would almost be a gutsy move to commit to that level of immaturity in a movie with performers of this calibre. Instead, we get a host of false compromises, as the movie tries to have the best of both worlds. We get lots of jokes about viagra, but repeated assurances that our leads don’t actually need it. Last Vegas never crosses a line, because it’s too busy tiptoeing around it.

Is there an MD in the house?

Is there an MD in the house?

Early in the film’s runtime, there’s a desperate marriage proposal made during a eulogy at a funeral, which seems like it would be the perfect fodder for a bad taste comedy; instead, Last Vegas chooses to play the scene as tone-deaf sentiment.  Later on, after trying desperately to take advantage of a confused young woman (singled out by another member of the cast for her “daddy issues”), one of our leads has a last-minute crisis of conscience about cheating on his wife. Eventually, he offers a rather heavy-handed speech about how he loves the woman he married, prompting the young woman he was sleazily trying to bed to remark, “I hope I marry a man like you.”

There’s no sense that Last Vegas is being ironic here. And there are quite a few moments like that throughout the film, as Last Vegas chickens out of being completely tasteless and crass, suddenly swerving towards cloying and saccharine. Tired old clichés are one thing, but at least there’s some fun to be had in committing to them – full speed ahead. Instead, we get lazy gags about how our leads don’t know who 50 Cent is or an over-long sequence in which Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline have trouble with central locking.

More coaster than roller...

More coaster than roller…

In the end, Last Vegas is a film that can’t even fully commit to the cynicism inherent in its premise. The four lead actors seem to spending most of the movie phoning it in, with DeNiro completely on auto-pilot. The only performer who seems to be making an effort is the wonderful Mary Steenburgen, who is wasted on a clumsy love triangle. Jon Turteltaub’s direction is suitably generic and the script never seems to work up the energy to try anything particularly engaging.

(My favourite moment of clumsy exposition comes at the start of the film, when the script needs to make sure we know that DeNiro’s character is a widower. Not trusting the audience to figure this out from context, or DeNiro’s performance to make it clear, one character actually utters the words “it’s been almost a year since Sophie died” while trying to convince DeNiro’s character to get back in the world. As if he might have forgotten that, and needed to be reminded both of his wife’s name and the fact that she is dead. The construction of the dialogue is distractingly clumsy, and give an indication of the esteem the film has for its audience.)

Men behaving badly...

Men behaving badly…

Maybe we’ll be spared the unironically titled Last Vegas 2.

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2 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. Didn’t hate this as much, if only because the leading legends are what really saved this for me. Wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t all that good neither. It was just fine for what it was.

    • I suppose, but it just seemed like it was coasting, and it wasn’t willing to commit to either “we’ve got four living legends here, let’s celebrate them!” or “wouldn’t it be wonderfully irreverent to put four well-liked actors through The Hangover?” So we end up with a bit of a false compromise.

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