With “Going in Style,” screenwriter Theodore Melfi (co-writer and director of 2016’s Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures”) has updated the 1979 story of three retiree friends deciding to pull off a bank heist. The original film starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg at their best. For this version, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin do the honors. The result is an entertaining, and at times thought-provoking, look at economics and aging in America.
Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) met while working for Semtech Steel and now live across the street from each other in Brooklyn, New York. Willie and Albert share living expenses while Joe provides a home for his divorced daughter (Maria Dizzia) and his teenage granddaughter (Joey King).
Economic hits start first for Joe when his mortgage payment triples because an uncaring bank officer (Josh Pais) advised him to take a “teaser rate” loan. A double whammy is coming when the company freezes the friends’ pensions. Semtech is following the American business school model of lowering costs; the frozen pensions are scheduled to pay off company debts. This leaves all three friends in a financial bind, with Joe’s home heading into foreclosure.
When Joe visits Williamsburg Savings to discuss his mortgage, he witnesses an armed robbery of the bank. He briefly speaks with the lead robber, who treats Joe with more respect than he later receives from the FBI agent (Matt Dillon) who interviews him.
After push comes to shove financially, Joe decides to rob Williamsburg to get the pensions owed to himself and his friends before the money is diverted to the company’s lenders. Willie and a very reluctant Albert ultimately agree to join him.
Melfi’s script gets right down to business with the opening scenes of Joe witnessing the armed robbery. The retirees’ pain is related to contemporary business models and the “too big to fail” banks that prompted the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago.
Throughout, Melfi retains the humanity and dignity of his senior citizen characters. Both Joe and Willie have granddaughters they adore. Their emphasis on family and friends is positive and heartwarming. Albert gets to find love (and sex) in his autumn years with pretty, upbeat Annie (Ann-Margret). Christopher Lloyd plays Milton, a senior citizen who is often disoriented. But, that characterization (which is reminiscent of the “spacey” characters Lloyd played in the “Back to the Future” series and on TV’s “Taxi”) is funny, rather than “making fun of” Milton’s issues.
Director Zach Braff uses his three leads to their best advantage. Caine and Freeman have previously worked together in the heist “Now You See Me” films and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy take on Batman. But, they bring different personas to these roles. Caine’s Joe is no Charlie from his original heist film, 1969’s “The Italian Job”. Instead, he’s reserved and thoughtful. Freeman’s Willie is easy-going and philosophical while Arkin’s Albert is the worrywart jazz saxophonist.
The supporting cast meshes perfectly with the leads. Ann-Margret brings an infectious energy to her scenes with Arkin. Kenan Thompson as the manager of a Value Town market delivers some of the film’s funniest lines. And Siobhan Fallon Hogan as a waitress at the local diner has just the right amount of sass, possibly reminding some viewers of Polly Holliday’s Flo from TV’s “Alice.”
Melfi has also added touches that fit perfectly with the characters’ generation. The masks they choose for their heist are of Frank, Dean and Sammy of the Rat Pack (the 1979 original trio wore Groucho Marx disguises). And, before the heist, they’re watching 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon” when Al Pacino’s bank robber shouts his famous “Attica!”
Even as “Going in Style” refers to contemporary angst over corporate policies, it always retains its comedic emphasis. Much like 2011’s “Tower Heist,” the film gives the “average worker” a chance to take on greedy business interests. Caine, Freeman and Arkin earn audience empathy and provide plenty of laughs as they decide to challenge the corporate system.