By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: A class act all the way, see this one instead of the slick remake. George Burns was never better than in this heartbreaking drama.
Years prior to his dual Oscar nominations for Scent of a Woman (Best Director, Best Picture) and blockbuster breakthrough Beverly Hills Cop, Martin Brest wrote and directed the original Going in Style. The 1979 film, which turned a tidy profit (the modestly-budgeted drama grossed $26 million; about $92 million in today’s dollars), starred three aging legends: George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. With a glitzy new comedic remake hitting theaters, it’s well worth remembering that the original is such a quiet gem. It’s a film about loneliness and desperation. It’s the story of three men who have lost sight of their purpose in the world.
Though the poster (and now DVD) art looks decidedly like a wacky comedy—three old dudes wearing Groucho Marx glasses, each one packing heat?!—the film itself couldn’t be further from a laugh-fest. Joe (Burns), Al (Carney), and Willie (Strasberg) are three retired seniors sharing a house, barely subsisting on social security checks. As we see them shuffle through their routine-driven days, which mostly consist of sitting on a park bench, it’s clear Brest has no desire to present the trio as cute, lovable oldsters. “I’m sick of this shit,” declares Joe and, although mild by any other standard, it’s bracing to hear Burns utter such a direct statement. This isn’t Grumpy Old Men cutesy territory (leave that to the Zach Braff-directed remake). These guys are waiting to die—nothing more, nothing less. And they’re none too thrilled about it.
Joe hatches a plan to rob a local bank. If they get away with it, they’re on easy street. If they get caught, it’s free room and board (i.e. prison) for a few years as their social security checks accumulate. Brest isn’t concerned with the details of planning the heist, or the heist itself for that matter. The very idea of attempting the stick-up is enough to put some pep back in these guys’ step. Ultimately Joe’s presumption that his “plan” is fool-proof turns out to be false. There were too many variables he hadn’t accounted for. Brest treats the post-robbery fallout with dignity as the natural high generated by the robbery quickly deflates.
The performances are uniformly effective (with then-60-year-old Carney playing 10-15 years older). But the most deeply-felt work is by George Burns. He won an Oscar for his supporting work in The Sunshine Boys a few years earlier, but this lesser-known role is the finest dramatic work of his long, storied career. If you consider yourself familiar with the patented Burns comedic persona but have never seen this film, prepare to be surprised. Special note should also be taken of the late Michael Small’s score, which deftly mixes jaunty, old-timey jazz with beautifully understated melodicism.
Going In Style images: Warner Bros. Pictures