Going in Style (M) National release Table 19 (M) National release
Two corking comedies this week, each about people unjustly confined to the fringes: elderly folk and unwanted guests at a wedding reception. Going in Style is a remake of Martin Brest’s 1979 caper flick, in which three old friends, Joe, Willie and Al, decide to lift themselves out of pension penury by robbing a bank.
The original, starring comic greats George Burns (Joe) and Art Carney (Al) alongside the godfather of method acting Lee Strasberg (Willie), is funny, grumpy and sad, full of deadpan humour and old-fashioned values.
The new version is written and directed by Zach Braff, known for his role as the neurotic doctor JD in the TV comedy series Scrubs. His three stars are just about as good as any director could ask for: Michael Caine (Joe), Morgan Freeman (Willie) and Alan Arkin (Al).
Indeed, watching the two movies back to back I wondered if there was an originalremake combination with more Oscars to its credit. Admittedly I cheated a bit by including Strasberg, who as artistic director of the Actors Studio worked with just about everyone, from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman to Steve McQueen, Anne Bancroft to Sally Field, Gene Hackman to Gene Wilder. Jack Nicholson had to audition five times before he was accepted, Dustin Hoffman six.
Funnily enough Strasberg is the only one of the six lead actors, 40 years apart, without an Oscar. Caine has two (for Hannah and Her Sisters and Cider House Rules) and the others one each. There’s something about this that goes to the heart of Going in Style, past and present: old people have life in them yet, and damn anyone who thinks otherwise. Burns was almost 80 when he won his Oscar, for The Sunshine Boys in 1975, and he lived to 100.
Braff, much younger than his stars, as was Brest, pays proper respect to the original. Some of the dialogue is identical, and for good reason: it was funny then and it’s funny now, not least because it’s still true. When a supermarket manager catches the antediluvian amigos shoplifting, he humours them and hands out discount coupons. Some biases never change.
The story is modernised in a thrilling way. There’s still droll humour but also physical comedy, such as a chase involving a motorised walking frame shopping basket. (The response of the old woman from whom it’s stolen is priceless.) There are important changes between the two films, too, as we move towards the end.
It’s set in New York and the action opens with a bank robbery. Joe is in the bank. The robbers, hidden behind black ski masks, seem to have a social agenda. “It’s a culture’s duty to take care of its elderly,’’ the leader declares. Joe couldn’t agree more. The bank is about to foreclose his mortgage and evict him, his daughter and granddaughter. Like Willie and Al, he worked for decades at a steel mill. But it’s been sold and, in the sort of decision that won votes for Donald Trump, is moving its operations to Vietnam and cancelling the pensions of former workers. So Joe suggests a bank robbery. It’s a job that needs a lot of preparation, with the help of an animal-loving From left, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin in Going in
above; Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant, Anna Kendrick and Tony Revolori in
left criminal (John Ortiz, who is great). Ann-Margret brings her trademark sensuality to the role of Annie, who fancies Al, much to his surprise: “She likes me for who I am. I don’t even like me for who I am.” Matt Dillon is a mix of certainty and uncertainty as an FBI agent.
Freeman and Arkin are spot on, but it is Caine who stands out. Watching him — look for the melancholic pre-heist moment where he talks to his granddaughter — I had the thought that perhaps he is our greatest living actor.
There are lots of laugh-out-loud set pieces, some with clever nods to the genre. “I don’t want to watch the ending,’’ Joe says as the friends watch Dog Day Afternoon. Yet for me the movie that most popped into mind was Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven. I hope that in their mature years George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle make Oceans Eighty. The result would be the same as in Going in Style, 1979 and 2017: class, class, class. Table 19 also reminded me of another film, the superb 1958 drama Separate Tables, for which David Niven won an Oscar, in perhaps his finest role. It came to mind because I started thinking about how few movies have a piece of furniture in their title. There’s Roman Polanski’s early silent short Two Men and a Wardrobe ... and then I run out. Readers will suggest others, I am sure, though I don’t think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window counts.
Anyway, the titular table in Jeffrey Blitz’s comedy, set mainly in a grand ballroom, is the one remotest from the just-married couple. It may as well be in the toilets, as one of the occupants suggests. That’s Jerry Kepp (Craig Robinson), who runs a diner in Ohio with his wife Bina (Lisa Kudrow). They don’t seem happy.
Also at Table 19 are young, decent, naive Reznor (Tony Revolori), who is under orders from his mother to find a girl and have sex, and elderly Jo (June Squibb), a former nanny to the bride. The one person who would never have been assigned there is Eloise (Anna Kendrick) ... until she broke up with the bride’s brother.
There’s one more, who I’ve saved for last because he’s the gem: Walter (English actor Stephen Merchant), a tall, gangly, awkward, shy man who is hiding something. As we learn more about him, he is a riot. Walter speaks with an accent that may be Australian or Kiwi — he says “dickhead” — and there are suggestions of a seamy antipodean link to the family of the bride. Sydney actor Thomas Cocquerel pops up as a mystery guest, and he’s good.
So Table 19 is a group of people who don’t know each other, and wouldn’t much care to. But as the reception goes awry they have to look after each other. This is the human message of this amusing film: everyone’s life gets messy at times. It’s important to cut others some slack, even when it’s not deserved. “Everyone’s ridiculous,’’ Bina says to her judgmental husband, “and you deal with it. That’s life.’’
Style, Table 19,