Watching Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin sitting in a diner, talking about the old days, produces a certain kind of frisson, a comforting familiarity that springs from their collective decades of on-screen myth-making. Conversely, though, there’s a profound sense of despair that stems from seeing the man who played Michael Corleone lying on a hospital bed with a pup-tent erection, leering at his doctor in a scene that feels ripped from a sub-Apatow VOD knockoff. Your mileage with Stand Up Guys will depend on how much despair you’re willing to endure in order to get to the worthwhile stuff—scenes in which the rookie filmmakers get out of the way and let the veteran actors play off of each other.
The film is a sloppy cross-mutation of overused generic plot templates, among them the guys-getting-laid frat-boy comedy and the Tarantino-esque crime drama, all shot through with a generous dose of hit-or-miss pathos. Pacino plays career criminal Val, just released from jail after serving a 28-year sentence. He’s met at the gate by his old partner, Doc (Walken), and, catching up be damned, insists on embarking immediately on a night of debauchery. But there’s trouble coming, hinted at by the sadness in Doc’s eyes and the gun he pulls out every time Val turns his back. Apparently, Val was imprisoned for accidentally killing the son of crime boss Claphands (the great Mark Margolis, shamefully wasted), a vengeful man who let Doc, who was also at the scene of the crime, live these last 28 years for the sole purpose of having him put a bullet in Val’s head.
Noah Haidle’s contrived screenplay staggers to a thoroughly unsurprising conclusion after hitting every sitcom-esque cliché and Pulp Fiction-style random encounter it can concoct. There are no less than two mawkish subplots involving estranged daughters, and the situational humor, such as the agonizingly protracted Viagra sequences, represents yet another career low for Pacino. Elsewhere, Alan Arkin, as Doc and Val’s old getaway driver, broken out from his retirement home at one point, rehashes the same character he’s been playing for at least the last decade; he switches deftly between melancholy and humor, but isn’t allowed to fulfill the potential of what’s essentially an extended cameo.
And yet, it’s difficult to condemn outright a film in which Walken and Pacino kick butt together. Nostalgia’s effect on a movie like this cannot be underestimated, a fact exploited to the hilt by the main players. Haidle and director Fisher Stevens fail to plumb the dramatic depths of their setups, but every now and then the actors pick up the slack, filling in the blanks with three decades of mythic resonance. Walken is the highlight, in full control of all the little tics—a steely glance there, a sad smile here—that have made his screen persona so distinctive. His verbal idiosyncrasies feel less like mannered performative riffs and more like the measured regret-inflected words of an old man. The storied careers of these two men confer some substance upon otherwise forgettable proceedings, the cumulative result an irresistible urge to watch a double bill of The Deer Hunter and The Godfather: Part II.