Zach Braff’s directorial career follows an interesting trajectory. With Garden State, his once-beloved-and-now-overly-criticized directorial debut, Braff made an outstanding welcoming card, one that captured the bizarre, awkward confusion, senselessness and aimlessness of one’s 20s with poetic grace, a sensitive soul and a fresh, dazzling eye for stunningly peculiar visuals. Screw the haters; Garden State is one of the most formative coming-into-adulthood indie dramedies of this past generation for a damn good reason.
Yet, that acute, promising and tremendously exciting new vision wasn’t nearly as well-realized in Braff’s earnest-but-mostly-misguided sophomore feature, Wish I Was Here. Meant to explore one’s chaotically disheveled 30s with Braff’s attentive, once-signature idiosyncratic approach, it was an overambitious, overly self-indulgent flop that became everything some viewers (wrongfully) considered Braff’s first film to be. Today, it’s more well-known for its controversial Kickstarter fundraiser than anything in the film.
This leads us, weirdly enough, to the director’s newest effort, Going in Style, a modernized remake of the 1979 crime comedy with the same name, which serves as Braff’s first studio project. How a filmmaker behind soul-searching movies exploring one’s sense of self through their 20s and 30s, respectively, decided to make a broad comedy about kooky 70-year-olds robbing their neighborhood bank as his third picture is truly anyone’s guess. Perhaps that just explains Hollywood in a nutshell? Maybe so. Especially since Braff’s latest film is robbed of any semblance of his individual style.
You see what I did there?
Filling in for the original’s George Burns, Lee Strasberg and Art Carney, Braff’s Going in Style follows Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as Joe, Willie and Albert, a trio of life-long senior citizen pals who are tired of being screwed over by the system. Despite decades of loyalty to their local manufacturing business, a recent company buy-out finds their pensions sacrificed in the restructuring. Between their individual money woes, family dilemmas and health problems, they all could use some financial support, and Joe believes he knows how to get what’s due to them. In the midst of settling a bank dispute one day, Joe inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery, where he isn’t hurt or stolen from. Instead, he’s given newfound motivation and purpose.
After some much-needed convincing, Joe gets Willie and Albert involved in his scheme, which finds the older gentlemen playing their own variation of Robin Hood as they steal from the gritty rich and give back to the underprivileged, notably those in the community. They won’t steal more than what they’re owed, and anything else will go to charity. They might be breaking the law, but that doesn’t make them bad people. Rather, they’re doing something wrong to do something right for themselves, for once. In other words, they’re going out in style, even if they spend their final years in prison.
Even if you wanted to check this one out solely as an excuse to watch a bunch of established acting veterans cut loose and have fun some laidback fun in their twilight years, Going in Style is severely, distressingly lackluster. Caine, Freeman and Arkin share a decent amount of chemistry together, but the film’s generally indifferent, lazy approach makes even their performances lack any weight or emotional honesty. One could excuse that missing depth if the actual movie itself was enjoyable and breezy, but Braff approaches everything like a work mandate, seemingly doing little-to-nothing to make any scene pop or whiz. If you’re going to essentially make Ocean’s 77, the very least you can do is give the movie some much-needed sizzle. Yet, Braff’s perfunctory and seemingly disinterested movie, with its shapeless cinematography, dull score and jarring tonal shifts, calls to mind Kevin Smith’s similarly bland, uninvolving Cop Out.
It’s hard to figure out what exactly when wrong here because it’s hard to tell if there was literally any investment from any of the talented people involved. Beyond Braff at the helm, Going in Style is scripted by Theodore Melfi, the recently Oscar-nominated writer/director behind Hidden Figures, which similarly followed a trio of undervalued people — in that case, three brilliant-but-overlooked black female NASA scientists — and found a way to make its dramatic hamminess (mostly) work to its own advantage. Going in Style, in comparison, sometimes bounces to life with a cheeky one-liner or an amusing side remark, but it doesn’t contain any of that film’s comedic or dramatic heft.
Braff was once a filmmaker filled with enormous potential. If Going in Style is a sign of things to come from his name, however, it’d be safe to call him a one hit wonder. Maybe even a fluke. Going in Style is a disparagingly empty, half-hearted film, one that puts Braff in a mode I never expected him to fill: director-for-hire. The first movie he directed but didn’t subsequently write or star in, it holds virtually no signs of his involvement or input, and it makes his second movie look like his first. At least Wish I Was Here, for all its faults, felt like a movie a filmmaker made. Going in Style is a movie that could’ve been made by seemingly anyone, and it finds Braff creatively bankrupt.