Movie review: ‘Going in Style’

gI absolutely love when this happens: I was going through some DVDs and came across a forgotten favorite. You know, you remember the film fondly but haven’t thought about it in a while. Well, I hadn’t thought about “Going in Style” for at least 10 years (I know, I have the DVD …) and then I noticed it. Great! It’s the story of three elderly men who decide to break up the monotony of their lives by pulling a bank robbery. It is part serious, part fun and part social commentary. Overall it is a showcase for three major talents (George Burns, Art Carney and legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg) and shouldn’t be missed if you enjoy good acting and can find it.

‘Going in Style’
(1979; 97 minutes; rated PG; directed by Martin Brest and starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg)

SPICING UP RETIREMENT BY PULLING A ROBBERY

Going in Style” is a little movie with a big punch, but you can take it as light or as deep as you want.

First it is a light-hearted story about three old men who decide to spice up their life and adding to their meager finances by robbing a bank. So, you can have fun with that, but, secondly, “Going in Style” delivers a gut-punch reality check about issues with the elderly that hold true even 35 years later, if not holding true even more so.

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Finally, there are superb performances by three actors arriving in this film from different directions: Oscar winner George Burns from his past that began in vaudeville with his wife Gracie; Oscar winner Art Carney with his past in TV; and Oscar nominee Lee Strasberg with his direction of method acting through the famous Actors Studio.

Still, all three have something in common: excellent work in film. Burns earned his Oscar for “The Sunshine Boys;” Carney earned his for “Harry and Tonto;” and Strasberg’s nomination was for his outstanding portrayal of Jewish gangster “Hyman Roth” in “The Godfather: Part II.”

In “Going in Style,” the men are widowers living together in New York City and their entire existence consists of daily walks to the park, watching children play (they actually show youngsters with toy guns in the pre-politically correct days of 1979) and cashing their Social Security checks. It’s a grindingly boring life, especially for Burns, who comes up with the idea that they should rob a bank.

Given that if they are caught they’d get off light or that, if successful, they would have extra money to do more things, Burns is sold and convinces the other two – but it didn’t take much. They figure out which bank (away from their home turf) and get guns from Carney’s nephew (the guy doesn’t know that they’ve been borrowed). They pull off the heist; make a somewhat fast and comical getaway; and wind up counting the loot at home ($35,555 to be exact).

The heist is funny in that everyone in the bank just stares at them in amazement and isn’t scared (a manager says, “You’ve got to be kidding”) until Burns fires off a shot into a wall clock. THAT gets their attention.

Until this point “Going in Style” has been somewhat light-hearted and fun watching the guys go about their robbery – with one exception being an emotional scene by Strasberg. However, things turn dark quickly as the same day of the robbery sees Strasberg die of a heart attack. Now we’re into serious drama as Burns looks through Strasberg’s personal items and then the funeral (especially where Burns looks at the casket and says he gets the feeling he’d be joining him soon).

After the funeral, things lighten up and Burns has a new idea for him and Carney: Vegas baby!

After planning to give Carney’s nephew $25,000 to start his own business, the surviving boys head to Las Vegas (neither had ever been on an airplane before) where, with Carney rolling the dice and Burns making the wagers, they win $61,900 after starting out with $2,500 in chips. Concerned that the FBI might get on to them because of their gambling, they flee quickly and head back to New York. All of the excitement and travel is too much and Carney is the next to die and finally the crime catches up with the remaining criminal: Burns. The FBI has been doing its job and Burns is arrested; refuses to say where the money is (he’s given it all to Carney’s nephew); and winds up in prison at the end of the movie with a wonderful scene saying goodbye to the nephew.

Burns is spot-on with his timing and stolid exterior as “Joe” and is even better when he allows his character to show vulnerability. Although I can’t say he’s better here than Carney, this is his best effort in a film in my opinion. He’s a bit cantankerous here but never cruel or too bitter as an old man and while not a ray of sunshine, he works with the energy he has each day. Burns has also been in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Oh, God!

Carney as “Al” is the outgoing member of the trio: he’s bubbling with energy, he dances to street musicians’ music and his natural showmanship is in the spotlight at the Vegas craps table. Like Burns and Strasberg, Carney delivers emotion along with his character’s primary trait and does some of his best work here. He was also on TV’s classic “The Honeymooners” with Jackie Gleason as well as “Firestarter” and “Last Action Hero.”

The last of the three guys is Strasberg, who was a legendary acting coach and plays his role of “Willie” here as a retiring, fragile and soft-spoken man. Strasberg is simply marvelous when to Carney he reflects with remorse about the time he spanked his oldest son. You cannot get an any classier or talented actor than you did with Strasberg. He’s also been in “…And Justice for All” in his brief filmography of only 10 roles.

In watching “Going in Style” again I was constantly amazed at the ease these three men were able to bring up emotion and present it in a way that most likely affects different people in different ways. It’s odd that “Going in Style” or its actors did not receive any Oscar nominations (the three men shared an acting award from the 1980 Venice Film Festival).

The only supporting actor worth noting is Charles Hallahan, who plays the nephew “Pete.” Hallahan is the epitome of the working man here and is very sensitive to his uncle’s needs and gives a solid performance that could have been much too easily fumbled. Hallahan was also in “The Thing” and “Dante’s Peak.”

As to the age of the actors (they were playing men in their 70s in “Going in Style”), here we go:

  • Burns was the oldest at 83 at the time of “Going in Style.” He would die at the age of 100 in 1996.
  • Carney was the youngest of the trio at 61 when “Going in Style” was released. He would die at the age of 85 in 2003.
  • Strasberg was 78 when “Going in Style” was released. He would be the first of the trio to die and he passed away at the age of 80 in 1982.

You can take many things out of this film from just enjoying its energy and skipping over the most serious moments or you can reflect on life, aging and what it means to grow old in society (it wasn’t all too different three decades ago).

Going in Style” was outside the top 10 films at the U.S. box office in 1979 with $29.9 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Kramer vs. Kramer” with $106.2 million and the No. 2 film was “The Amityville Horror” with $86.4 million.

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • One neat bit part is by a character without a single line: Karen Montgomery as an unnamed ethereal-looking hooker who flirts with Carney at the casino’s restaurant. Both Montgomery and Carney are completely expressive without speaking a word. Montgomery has also been in the sketch comedy film “Amazon Women on the Moon.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In the scene where Joe (George Burns) is looking through his old photos and other memorabilia, he looks at a photo of a young couple – presumably Joe and his wife – and it makes him start to cry. The photo is actually a picture of George Burns and his real (late) wife Gracie Allen. They were a famous show business team from vaudeville through early television. She died in 1964.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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