Are We Stand Up Guys?

Are We Stand Up Guys? January 31, 2013

Review of Stand Up Guys, Directed by Fisher Stevens


What makes a stand up guy? Friendships between three retired gangsters tries to answer this question in the just-released Stand Up Guys starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. After 28 years in prison, Val (Pacino) has finally served his time and rejoins his two buddies Doc (Walken) and Hirsch (Arkin) for a night to remember. There’s a problem, however. Val was in jail because of a job gone wrong, ending in a shoot out. Their boss at the time, Claphands, had sent his son along for the ride and Val accidentally killed him in the crossfire. Claphands has waited 28 years for his revenge, and Doc is the appointed agent of death.

The plot is surprisingly simple. Doc admits that he’s been sent to kill Val–the deadline is brunch the next day. And so the night is spent reliving their past: stealing a muscle car, breaking into a pharmacy, beating up some bad guys, stealing a shopkeeper’s clothes, and visits to prostitutes. There are good laughs (sometime inappropriate ones), but also sentimental moments of reprieve that allow breathing room to consider the mortality of these characters as they are indeed nearing the end.

You won’t find a strong story line interweaving the variety of spontaneous schemes they concoct to have a good time together. For me, this was rather off-putting, since there was no driving force propelling the film forward other than the looming brunch deadline, but for others this might be part of the charm. The meandering story is a meditation on the archetype of a “stand up guy,” which is most evident in old age, since a stand up guy is persistent in his “stand up-edness.”

So what makes a stand up guy? Director Stevens says, “A stand up guy has loyalty, guts and humor. I hope that audiences are moved when they watch this story of friendship and that they start to think about their own mortality and their own friendships.” Stand Up Guys centers on a man, Val, who is content without having many friends as long as he has one or two stand up friends. Early on in the film, Val confesses to Doc that he doesn’t have any friends left except for Doc, who sent care packages to prison for Val and picked Val up when he got out. This is true to the saying, “A man with many friends can still be ruined, but a true friend sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

Whenever the Bible speaks of friendship, it speaks of loyalty and courage. Of loyalty, the Proverbs say, “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need” (Prov. 17:17). Of courage (to speak), “An open rebuke is better than hidden love! Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy” (Prov. 27:5-6). And ultimately, as Jesus testified, a stand up guy is marked by sacrifice. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13).

While I believe humor (Stevens’s third ideal in his triumvirate of stand up virtues) is a great addition to any friendship, I do not consider it vital. And that may have been my main problem with Stand Up Guys. Not just because the humor was mature, which may make this film inappropriate for some Christian viewers, but much more because it eclipsed the more redeemable aspects of the film. The scenes offering a look at persevering friendship, Doc paying for Val’s expenses, the sharing of painful memories, and all the many ways Doc exudes loyalty and guts–these scenes are undermined by the jolting humor peppering the screenplay and, in my opinion, deflated the film’s staying power.

A nod to humor with one or two scenes would suffice, but it almost became the backbone of narrative. The amount of time given to humor outweighed by far that given to loyalty and guts and other ideals of a stand up guy. For that reason, Stand Up Guys failed to live up to its name.

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