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Non-Review Review: Going in Style

At one point in Going in Style, octogenarian would-be bank robber Albert decides to craft an alibi for an elaborate bank robbery while working at a cotton candy stand.

This image might just encapsulate Going in Style, a very light and fluffy bank robbery film about a trio of senior citizens who embark upon a bank robbery in order to balance the books. The movie is consciously (occasionally suffocatingly) feel good story of a bunch of cynical wise-cracking pensioners embarking upon wish fulfillment revenge against the banks that have taken so much from hard-working and decent Americans. Think of it as Hell or High Water that swaps the moral ambiguity for a clumsy score.

Dinner of champions.

Going in Style is not an especially complicated film. It never pauses to evaluate what is happening, or why. It is anchored in the assumption that people are basically decent, even when pushed to extremes. It goes for as many obvious jokes as it can cram into its ninety-six-minute run-time, from a few cheap laughs about the embarrassment factor of old-age sex to other jokes about bodily functions. But its heart is in the right place, as it goes out of its way to repeatedly assure the audience.

The extent to which Going in Style could be said to work rests in the easy charm of its three leads, in the pleasure of seeing Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin play off one another. None of the trio is pushing themselves. All three leads are essentially offering some minor variation on an established schtick, with no nuance or strain. The result is a heist thriller that never feels like it is racing against the clock, more ambling in its own time.

Benched.

There is always some pleasure to be had in putting a bunch of veteran actors together and watching them play off one another. Going in Style relies on its leads in their default modes. “Charming gentleman with a bit of a dodgy idea” is second nature to Michael Caine. Morgan Freeman exudes “fundamental decency and moral certainty.” Alan Arkin can do “grumpy yet lovable grampa” in his sleep. None of the actors in Going in Style are doing career-best work, or even stepping outside their comfort zone. However, it does seem like they are enjoying themselves.

Going in Style works best when it goes broad, and when it doesn’t hammer the point too heavily. One of the film’s more memorable visuals has one of the trio carrying another in the basket at the front of a motorised wheelchair, making a desperate escape from a determined security guard. Another sequence plays out the elaborate “this is how we do it” heist planning montage that lasts five minutes after the three leading characters standing at a urinal. These are hardly cutting edge or insightful gags, but there is a weird “lovable granddad” vibe to them.

Rat packin’ heat.

However, Going in Style often feels unease and uncomfortable with its humour and its characters. Repeatedly, the film awkwardly overplays gags, leaning far too heavily on a Rob Simonsen score that seems more like a checklist of “instrument sounds you expect to hear on a cool high-energy heist film.” The music department certainly gets its mileage out of that bass guitar. Going in Style is a film that seldom trusts its audience to know when to laugh, and so offers a visual or audio cue intended to signal that the joke has landed.

(It does not help matters that some of the jokes are older than the lead characters – including jokes about things that are older than the lead characters. If the audience doesn’t get some of these gags after decades of pop culture saturation, then a heavy-handed visual or audio cue isn’t going to help it land now. There are also a couple of ill-advised jokes that seem like they never should have made it into the final film, including a so-quick-it-barely-registers put-down about an African American character.)

Making a meal of it.

This heavy-handedness recurs throughout the film. Going in Style bends over backwards to assure audience members that the characters are fundamentally decent people. They are in a tough situation, but their turn to crime should be considered a morally ambiguous act. The characters are only robbing the bank foreclosing on Joe’s house, and which is handling the dissolution of their pension fund. They make a point that the only people who will suffer are the insurance company, and they they can handle it.

Going in Style is interesting if only because it demonstrates the depth and breadth of anger and resentment simmering towards the financial services in contemporary culture. Going in Style never suggests that its characters are morally ambiguous anti-heroes. Instead, the film argues that they are the bona fides heroes of the narrative, with no question of motivation and no sense that their desperation might push them past any serious moral threshold. Going in Style embraces the idea that all the characters are doing is robbing their money back.

They’re toast.

It is a fascinating case study of a contempt that has been largely overlooked and ignored. Going in Style is not a film taking risks, and it is most certainly not trying to make its audience uncomfortable. There is something striking about a film that treats bank robbery as an act of unequivocal empowering heroism. It is reflective of a national mood, in a very broad manner that is no less insightful for that broadness.

Going in Style repeatedly assures the audience that Joe and his friend mean nobody any harm. They carefully calculate the money owed to them through their pension. What happens if they steal more? “We’ll give it to charity,” Joe insists. The gang are not looking for anything more than they feel that they are owed. They don’t want charity. They want what they deserve. When Joe is introduced to a veteran bank robber, the film is careful to make sure he is on the same wavelength. “People have no heart anymore,” he reflects as he tends to abandoned puppies.

Note: actors may be moving faster than the plot.

Going in Style is a perfectly conventional straight-down-the-middle film that takes very few creative risks. With that in mind, some of choices are illuminating. Going in Style is a movie that coasts on the charm of its three leading actors, occasionally stalling as it struggle to hit the hour-and-a-half mark. Indeed, Going in Style would do well to remain as limber and spritely as its three leading men.

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