‘Going In Style’: Zach Braff’s Old Man Heist Film Might Disappoint You

We like to believe that despite the wrinkles and grey hair, we’ll still feel like ourselves when we’re older.

Last weekend, my friends discovered FaceApp, a free app that uses neural-network processing to manipulate photos. It gives you fake toothy grins and shows what you might look like gender-swapped, “hot”, younger… and older.

The app’s promise to let you “meet your future self” is disquieting. We like to believe that despite the wrinkles and grey hair, we’ll still feel like ourselves when we’re older. But our youth-worshipping culture treats seniors as ‘former people’ whose only purpose is to inspire, counsel or embarrass younger generations. When they do things a younger person would — like partying, having sex, or as in Going in Style, robbing a bank — it’s fodder for mild humour.

Director Zach Braff (Garden State) and screenwriter Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) have chosen not to put their three superannuated thieves through anything genuinely risky or unruly, and the results are likeable but never vivid. Going in Style is a disappointingly docile vision of old age that squanders the charisma of its three Oscar-winning stars.

The Style of the Sixties

Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Al (Alan Arkin) are three retired Brooklyn steelworkers. They spend their time hanging out at Nat’s Diner, or at their local fraternal lodge, the Knights of Hudson. But just as Joe is visiting his bank to be told his house is being repossessed, the branch gets robbed. Joe is impressed by the heist’s efficiency, which has left the FBI agent on the case (Matt Dillon) unable to find the culprits.

So, when the steel mill is relocated offshore and its pension fund emptied, Joe convinces his friends to secure their financial dignity by robbing the same bank. After a dry run at the local supermarket ends farcically, they enlist the strategic help of Jesus (John Ortiz) — the cuddliest thug in New York.

We often imagine that old people dwell in the past and aren’t interested in new things. But here, Braff and Melfi are the ones ignoring an opportunity for social critique. Despite invoking today’s capitalist bogeymen of callous corporations and exploitative banks, Going in Style shrinks from class conflict of the sort that has animated heist films including David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share and even Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist.

Instead, this film wants to be a retro caper — and it specifically references the 1960s. Why? Because it’s stylish, dummy! This isn’t called Going in Story Logic. Braff uses split screens for phone conversations and planning montages — a technique that Norman Jewison famously deployed in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). And when Joe, Willie and Al rob the bank, they wear rubber masks of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, the stars of the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960).

The deliberately nostalgic production and costume design underscores the mood, from the cawfee-and-pie diner to the trio’s colour-blocked bowling shirts — and especially Willie’s hipster uniform of Hawaiian shirts and pork-pie hats. The film’s blue-and-orange colour palette is more of a reference to 1960s interior and industrial design — compare it to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) ­– than an instance of the aggressive teal-and-orange colour grading favoured by blockbuster films.

Even the flat characterisation is in service to the general retro vibe. That’s why Al is a jazz saxophonist, and ’60s bombshell Ann-Margret plays Annie, his love interest. And the film’s central puzzle — why a Londoner like Joe has longstanding roots in New York — has an intertextual retro heist-movie solution: in 1969, Michael Caine masterminded The Italian Job.

There’s Nothing Mild About Old Age

Going in Style is a remake of a 1979 film that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. (Yes, the very same guru of Method acting.) And it was grim as shit. In the original story, Joe, Willie and Al don’t rob the bank because they need the money; they do it because they’re numbingly bored, excluded from a system that has stopped regarding them as human beings. With the exception of Al’s nephew, they have no family; the heist makes them feel alive. Well, briefly — Al and Willie die of natural causes, and Joe is jailed.

By contrast, Melfi is careful to emphasise how the heist money will help the robbers strengthen their pre-existing family and community ties. Joe dotes on his granddaughter Brooklyn (Joey King) and chides his hopeless son-in-law Murphy (Peter Serafinowicz), Willie uses Skype to stay in touch with his daughter and granddaughter, and Al gets his romance with Annie.

Caine, Freeman and Arkin deploy their familiar personas — the crafty pragmatist, the placid optimist, the salty pessimist — in a broad, lazy way, because the film never suggests the challenges they face are serious. Sure, Joe’s about to lose his house; Willie’s kidneys are failing; and Al can’t even afford a slice of pie. But the part of old age that troubles these guys most is the possibility of ending up like Milton (Christopher Lloyd), their dotty lodge brother. (No stranger to playing weirdos, Lloyd really seems to be having fun here.)

The ‘mildly wacky elderly ensemble’ genre depresses me, whether it’s the mild antics of Last Vegas, the mild feuding in Grumpy Old Men, or the mild Orientalism of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The aggressive mildness of this film is all the more annoying because of Arkin’s memorable profanity in Argo, and Michael Caine’s excellent work as a melancholy conductor in Youth, a retired magician in Is Anybody There? and of course a housing-estate avenger in Harry Brown — the greatest ever film about old age and social isolation.

The best caper films about old age aren’t idly playful. They use humour to express the spark and spunk that society tries to strip from the elderly. The unexpectedly moving Robot and Frank has a retired jewel thief recruit his home-care robot as his accomplice and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish segment from Cloud Atlas is a delightful slapstick piss-take of the ‘nursing home jailbreak’ subgenre. Jim Broadbent’s Cavendish even fantasises about being played by Michael Caine in the film adaptation.

Ageing is bittersweet: it makes us brood on who we’ve become, as well as what’s been lost. But despite Going in Style’s interest in aestheticising the past, its three main characters never have a very convincing shared history. They’re likeable enough, but it’s hard to care when they decide to break bad.

Going in Style is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.