It was either an ironic quirk of fate or a stroke of genius by the theater manager. As I waited in the dim lighting for Stand Up Guys to start, “Por Una Cabeza” was piped in over the theater’s sound system. It’s the song Al Pacino danced the tango to in that famous scene in Scent of a Woman, and although I didn’t know it yet, the film I was about to see would hit many of the same beats. Both tell tales of aging tough guys who are out on the town for one last good time, involving a joyride in a sports car and a dance with a beautiful young woman. After these simple pleasures of the night, each character faces down the biggest hangover of all: his own demise.
Scent of a Woman was released in 1992, yet Pacino is essentially playing the same role in the same movie 21 years later. Since then, he has been impersonated, parodied, and ridiculed, and his reputation has been sullied by a string of uneven performances in mostly bad movies. While Pacino deserves quite a bit of blame for the caricature he has become, it is also just a function of time. Be great for as long as he has, and either your talent will fade or the cultural mores of a new era will render you irrelevant. At that point, caricature is your only leg left on which to stand.
In Stand Up Guys, Pacino is still standing but just barely. He plays Val, an aging crook who has spent 28 years in prison; after a job gone bad, he kept his mouth shut and took the fall for his friends and his boss. On the day he is released, his old friend and partner, Doc (Christopher Walken), is there to pick him up and take him out for a night on the town. This first section of the movie is played for straight laughs; think of it as Goodfellas meets Grumpy Old Men. Val and Doc drink and dance their way through old haunts, but with a geriatric twist. Before hitting the local brothel, they break into a pharmacy to steal Viagra, although Doc gets more excited at the opportunity to refill his other, less recreational prescriptions in one stop.
The cheap, easy laughs would degrade the stature of acting legends like Pacino and Walken if they didn’t seem to be having so much fun with it. They have a natural, understated chemistry that might not have existed between their younger, more intense selves. The two legendary actors bring unspoken histories to their roles now, bearing the scar tissues of iconic movies past: The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico. They can suggest the totality of a criminal life – pain, anger, suffering, and resignation – with just a glance; the deep lines on their faces are the roads of their friendship – broken in places but with deep grooves.
The night gets heavier as they inch closer to their unspoken secret – Doc is supposed to kill Val by morning. He has already served his time, but the crime boss who employed them still has a grudge to settle. Val and Doc approach this fact with time-tested weariness and almost a shrug of indifference; death is coming soon for them both, either way.
In dealing with these heavy subjects and with such evocative actors, Stand Up Guys had potential for poetry, but it consistently finds only the obvious angle. They rescue the third member of their gang (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, get into a high-speed chase, and even get to do some of their old work again. But director Fisher Stevens seems to be going through the motions, assigning little importance to any of it. The story may lend itself to a prosaic comment on the cyclical nature of violence, but Stevens has no interest in exploring its inherent themes, relying on the actors to make these connections themselves. Even actors this good need room to transcend the material, and Stand Up Guys mostly boxes them into corners.
Pacino is the biggest disappointment of all. He used to be the kind of actor who could elevate some pedestrian verse through sheer force of talent. Those days may have passed him by, or he may have decided that this one was just not worth the trouble. Given that Stand Up Guys hits the same beats as Scent of a Woman without any of the verve, it may be time to acknowledge – with more than just a little sadness – that this actor has outlived his legend.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue
Now watch this clip and remember joy: