It's tempting to give Stand Up Guys a pass, if only for its use of the word "arbiter." This "Grumpy Old Gangsters" comedy-drama includes an argument during which Alan Arkin asks Al Pacino, "What makes you the arbiter of whose pants are important and whose pants are not important?" I'll bet you dollars to donuts the word "arbiter" isn't in Noah Haidle's screenplay, which seems chronically incapable of making smart choices. But that's why you hire Second City veteran and Oscar winner Arkin: to spin gold from straw. It's also why you hire Oscar winners Pacino and Christopher Walken, the former an Actors Studio vet and the latter famed the world over for his refusal to respect punctuation. Their spontaneity makes the picture's first scene an immediate pleasure, though a sinking feeling sets in soon enough.
These guys are so good as to almost make the slight script they're given irrelevant...almost. Pacino and Walken play BFFs Val and Doc, who reunite when Val walks out of prison after twenty-eight years. Though he owes Val for being a "stand-up guy," Doc finds himself in the unenviable position of having to kill his only friend in the world (at the behest of Mark Margolis' mobster Claphands). The screenplay does backflips to explain this contrivance and delay the inevitable, to little avail.
Over 95 leisurely minutes, Stand Up Guys covers a period of about seventeen hours between Val's release and Doc's deadline to kill his friend. In that time, the characters wander the streets by night—stealing a luxury car for a joyride, busting their old wheel man Hirsch (Arkin) out of a nursing home, and getting their drink and prostitutes on. Hope springing eternal, director Fisher Stevens plays these "adventures" for the cheapest of laughs (which almost never actually bubble to the surface), and the requirements of sticking Pacino, Walken and Arkin into the likes of a sub-Blues Brothers police chase result in choppy editing. But the director's long resume as an actor is the film's secret weapon, for the movie's best bits are surprisingly tender moments between friends.
Those moments, sadly, are outnumbered by crass (okay) but dumb (not okay) episodes designed to allow the old men to bond with younger women, in the hope their demographic will sit through the movie: at the local bordello (run by Lucy Punch); the local hospital, where one of the nurses (Julianna Margulies) is Hirsch's daughter; and the local diner, which not-so-mysteriously draws Doc to a kind and pretty young waitress (Addison Timlin). There's also the naked victim (Vanessa Ferlito) the guys happen upon, who provides a sudden excuse for a righteous mission against bad guys.
The awfulness of the narrative is plain to see, and yet acting junkies probably won't be able to resist the cast. Fertile comic Arkin, graceful hangdog Walken, and shambling wild man Pacino can't do much for the story. But each inevitably brings his own cinematic backstory to the table: no one can say Stand Up Guys lacks personality.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Not surprisingly, Lionsgate's new Blu-ray + Ultraviolet Digital Copy combo pack for Stand Up Guys features excellent A/V. The source material is clean and crystal clear, sharp as a tack, and vibrant and finely calibrated in color and contrast. Black level and shadow detail likewise prove as good as they get, which provides crucial support to oft-problematic nighttime footage. The film's lower-end budget is perhaps more apparent in the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with its simple action sound effects, but the track maximizes the source, with always clear dialogue and full-bodied music.
Lionsgate pulls together some nice bonus features for this special edition, beginning with an audio commentary by director Fisher Stevens. Stevens is also an actor, which makes him a gregarious commentator, one who enthusiastically explains his approach, the film's origins, and the confluence of iconic stars.
EPK featurette "The Lowdown on Making Stand Up Guys" (11:54, HD) offers standard-issue set footage and talking-head interviews with Stevens, producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin.
Rounding out the disc are "The Stand Up Songs of Jon Bon Jovi" (4:46, HD), with Stevens and Jon Bon Jovi; "American Muscle: The Stand Up Stunt Driving Scenes" (5:03, HD) with stunt coordinator/second unit director Scott Robertson; and two "Deleted Scenes" (2:35, HD).
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