Fall Flat, by Rita Cannon
Stand Up Guys has a lot of problems, but its biggest is tone deafness. Comedy is dependent on stakes. A good dark comedy knows how to leverage the high stakes that are inherent in sad or creepy subject matter, and use them to amp up the humor into something that much more absurd and laughable. Stand Up Guys is a bad dark comedy. It skates along the surface of a lot of serious, painful topics – aging and mortality, violence and death, guilt and regret – but refuses to explore any of them in an honest or meaningful way. It not only fails to use the weight of these themes for comic effect; it fails to acknowledge their weight at all. The end result is a lot of jokes that border on being offensive, and almost none that even get within spitting distance of being funny.
Al Pacino plays Val, a career criminal who’s just getting out of jail after serving a 28-year sentence. He’s greeted at the gates by his longtime pal Doc (Christopher Walken). Unbeknownst to Val, Doc has orders from a mysterious kingpin named Claphands (Mark Margolis) to kill his old friend before ten o’clock the next morning as revenge for a botched robbery that resulted in the death of Claphands’ son. It’s Val’s first night of freedom, and Doc knows it’s also his last, so the two go out and have some law-breaking adventures for old time’s sake.
Their first stop is a brothel, but when Val realizes he can’t perform like he used to, the guys are forced to break into a drug store and steal some Viagra. It takes a few hours to kick in, so we’re subjected to a weird, icky scene in which Doc and Val go to a bar to play pool and inappropriately hit on young women while waiting for Val to pop a boner. Before long, the entire first act of the film has become The Odyssey of Val’s Boner, and it’s capped off by an over-the-top music cue and a zoom in on Val’s face as he announces, I swear to God, “Mount Everest just moved into my pants.” This is a hacky, juvenile moment – the kind of moment that makes one say, “Surely, there can’t be a plotline later in this same movie that revolves around the kidnapping and gang rape of a young woman!” But you’d be wrong! There is!
I’d like to tell you it’s handled with more sensitivity than the Mount Everest line, but I can’t. When the guys happen upon Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito), naked, bound, and gagged in the trunk of a car they’ve stolen, they kindly find her some clothes and take her to a diner to tell them about what happened. (The idea of taking her to a hospital or police station is never brought up by anyone.) She tells her story – a strange man lured her into a warehouse, where it turned out some other strange men were waiting for them, and pretty soon she was naked, and well, you know. She relays this information in a tone of moderate annoyance, as though being sexually assaulted were basically on par with having to wait in a long line at the DMV. Our heroes come to her aid, tracking down her assailants (not difficult, since they’re still hanging out in the warehouse where they raped her) and tying them up. Sylvia appears with a baseball bat, makes a punny joke about how her favorite ballet has always been The Nutcracker, and Doc and Val, knowing their work here is done, politely leave before Sylvia starts beating her attackers to a pulp. This bizarre happening is later described by Val as “helping a young woman take her life back,” which seems awfully generous to me, but whatever.
These comic misadventures land with a thud, but the dramatic stretches of the film aren’t much better. If we have a hard time buying Doc and Val as the stand up guys of the title, we have an equally hard time buying them as criminals. The heavy hearts they supposedly carry as a result of their past misdeeds are referred to in ways so shallow and glib that they never slow the film’s progression towards another dumb comic set piece or, conversely, another heavy-handed dramatic development that absolutely no one responds to in a recognizably human way. (When a supporting character unexpectedly dies in the third act, the thing that Doc and Val decide to do about it makes no sense, and the fact that at least one other character is totally fine with it beggars belief.) There’s a last ditch attempt to milk some catharsis out of a relationship we didn’t even know existed until the final ten minutes of the film. The resolution of the central conflict – will Doc murder his friend, or refuse and face the wrath of his superiors? – is as messy and strange as everything that came before it. Pacino and Walken are obviously great actors, and the film also features supporting turns from such talented people as Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, Lucy Punch, and Bill Burr. Unfortunately, none of them are able to elevate Stand Up Guys to anything other than a hokey, misshapen dud.