Catch me on an average day, and I am likely to sit you down in a comfortable chair, offer you a passable cup of coffee, and weave a disturbing tale of how the world would experience an immediate, tangible bliss upon the swift execution of that bumbling, shaking mass known as “senior citizenry.” You could imagine me dressed to the hilt in spit-shined leather, sporting assorted devices of torture and submission, as I herded the frightened, pruned bodies into the filthy cages that would be their final earthly abodes. And aside from my cheerful smirk or boyish twinkle in the eye, my story would be earnest, informative, and just a little bit kinky. But that’s an average day, as I said. In the face of 1979’s Going in Style, I am a different man indeed: reverential, empathetic, and fully devoted to the lives of three elderly gentlemen who are the very essence of charm. As played by George Burns, Art Carney, and acting titan Lee Strasberg (who gave us the unforgettable Hyman Roth), these characters bristle with the desperation and loneliness of their age, but spring to life with a passionate devotion to avoiding boredom.
Thankfully, these men aren’t entirely cuddly or sentimental. Two of them die in the course of the film, but rather than mourn them, we applaud the fact that before they checked out, they got to experience a bit of danger and excitement. And the film never condescends to their plight, either. They can take care of themselves, thank you very much (except when Mr. Burns pisses his pants while looking at old pictures), and just might push you out of the way to get what’s coming to them. The story is set in motion when the trio decides to rob a bank, partly out of having nothing better to do, but also to ensure a bit of financial security as the lean years take their course. They don’t really know what they are doing, of course, and despite getting away with thousands of dollars, they hear on the news that their “amateur” heist left a host of clues. After counting the cash, the film boldly shows that immediately following the robbery, they return to their familiar park bench watching dopey kids chase each other around a fire hydrant. They’re too tired to hit the track, too disinterested to catch a movie, and within moments, Willie (Strasberg) is felled by a heart attack. So much for a change of pace.
The two surviving pals hit Vegas (and improbably win a ton of cash), and again, charm the fuck out of us during a marathon craps game. While their run of luck seems fanciful, they are so befuddled and overwhelmed that we can half believe it. Al (Carney) flirts with a prostitute at the slot machines, and we even hope that the film dares to follow them back to the suite. But the fun cannot last, as they take their winnings and leave after having been in town for only a few hours. The strain kills Big Al, and Joe (Burns) is left alone to take the rap, although he refuses to reveal the location of the loot. He gladly accepts a prison term, for after all, he now has a secure place to live and three squares a day. At least he won’t have to worry about paying the electric bill.