Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg) are three friends who have grown old together, and now are stuck at the end of their lives with nothing to do, nothing to look forward to but their next social security payment but nothing to spend that on other than the bills for the New York City apartment they share. What can they do? They sit in the park watching the world go by but not feeling any part of it, they don't really have any family apart from Al who sees his nephew Pete (Charles Hallahan) and his young family sometimes, and can't place themselves as any kind of useful members of society. But then Joe, ever the ringleader, hatches a plan: how about they rob a bank?
But don't go thinking this was a heist movie, for while there was a bank robbery staged, it took up a short part of the running time; Going in Style was far from a thriller. It was actually a drama with comedy asides where the three veterans made an unlikely trio, two best known for humour and the other best known for revolutionising serious acting, but somehow as director Martin Brest brought them together it succeeded very well on its own terms. Those terms were to bring a little poignancy to what was already a sad situation, the fact that if you get old enough you don’t contribute anything very valuable in your retirement, or at least that was the perception as we can understand the three pals are very valuable to one another.
That need for company was a particularly important aspect to the story, and the thought of each of these men being left alone in the world when they were really all they had was not downplayed in the slightest, indeed it was the source of the melancholy mood. That offset the jokes, which may not have been laugh out loud, roaringly funny, but were carefully crafted by Brest to throw the drama into sharper relief yet also provide a respite from what was a depressing yarn if you started to analyse it. That humour was of the gentle, observational style, far from the director's more abrasive though no less effective gags in his megahit Beverly Hills Cop or his cult classic Midnight Run, but you could discern the same sensibility here.
After all, Burns and Carney were no slouches when it came to comedy, though Strasberg preferred to keep it subtle, with a dramatic scene for him as Willie recalls his late son who he managed to estrange unintentionally to demonstrate the now-elderly acting teacher still had it in him to land the serious stuff. That said, his co-stars, as if energised by his example, handled the drama very well themselves, with Burns in particular extremely effective at that balancing act between quips and the more tragic business: he had a scene where he reminisces alone in the apartment with his box of photographs, and they include ones of Burns' actual late wife and comedy partner Gracie Allen. When he wets himself as he sits there, we can understand his humiliation and the oft-spoken warning that old age is not for the weak of heart.
Going in Style was a curious film in many ways, as in spite of its obvious quality and beloved trio of acting and comedy legends it was not a hit, instead becoming a cult movie among those who had caught it on late night television. Burns had seen his career take off again after his turn in The Sunshine Boys where he stole the show from Walter Matthau, no mean feat, and Carney was basking in the glow of his own resurgence with Harry and Tonto of a few years before, while Strasberg probably didn’t need any more acclaim such was his influence, which made it all the more intriguing to see him there. These old geezers are often contrasted by the scenes and framing with little children to underline that they were kids themselves once, and how sad it is they have ended up this way, not just neglected by society but finding the only method of seizing the day and making something happen is to turn to crime, an irony not lost on this deceptively subtle film that got under your skin should you allow it. Jazzy music by Michael Small, and remade with an all-star cast in 2017.