Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Last Vegas' (2013) directed by John Turtletaub

The nicest thing I can say about Last Vegas is that it isn’t quite as bad as it so obviously should be. High praise indeed for a film that takes De Niro, a titan of cinema if there ever was one, and subjects him to an excruciating scene where a whooping moron grinds his thong clad groin in his face to the thumping beat of LFMAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Suddenly Taxi Driver feels like a film from an alternate (better) reality.  The inception of the film was obviously 'The Hangover but with famous old dudes' - a pitch so safe that studio heads probably began writing cheques so fast their pens blurred. And so we wind up with Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline do Vegas, a quartet whose combined star power is so colossal that this movie can only be so bad, right? R-right? 

The four play a gang of childhood friends who find themselves scattered across the country in their old age; Michael Douglas' Billy is desperately clinging to the last vestiges of his youth, preparing for marriage to a woman more than half his age; Kevin Kline’s Sam is living a horrible living dead life in Florida, impotent and emasculated; Morgan Freeman’s Archie is recovering from a stroke and consequently being infantilised by his overbearing son; and, most depressingly of all, Robert De Niro’s Paddy is a grumpy widower leading an isolated existence in a mausoleum to his dead wife. With Billy’s impending marriage the stage is set for one final big blowout, the four men throwing caution to the wind escaping to Vegas.

With that setup the script practically writes itself, each hilarious comedy encounter leading the four men towards re-igniting the dynamic spark of youth buried deep inside.  The film thus becomes a series of set-pieces in which the central joke is always is always an old fart having to deal with a situation usually suited for a much younger man. The film parades through nightclubs pumping out dirty bass, plastic fantastic bikini pool parties, high stakes gambling games and via an increasingly improbable amount of young, beautiful women willing to overlook their wrinkled, craggy exteriors and appreciate our heroes inner beauty.

Even the press pack screengrabs are bereft of style.
This is a cliche-written crapfest of a story, but for all the groanworthy narrative developments, Last Vegas never quite strays into the actually dire, settling on homogenous 'there-ness'. The critical mass of acting talent means that though the material is unquestionably middle-of-the-road, thankfully no-one humiliates themselves - their combined screen presence papering over the numerous cracks in the film. 

Turtletaub’s direction is quietly competent, though absent of pizzazz. There’s the odd heavyhanded yet workable moment; like Douglas’ Billy finally realising he should come to terms with his age while surrounded by ruined neon signs from the Sinatra-era, and a climactic party sequence is at at least visually busy and nicely colourful.  This anonymous, workmanlike directorial style is probably a hell of a lot more difficult to achieve than it looks, yet, frankly, it's just not very interesting to watch.  Mercifully the pacing is pretty brisk - a product of a palpable and grim determination threaded through the entire production to get this shit out of the way in as professional and competent a manner as possible so everyone can get back to doing what they actually want to do in life.

The four actors at the centre of the film appear to be largely sleepwalking through this, with good reason, De Niro in particular continuing to squandermuch of the recent goodwill he chalked up with Silver Linings Playbook - a performance that now feels like an exception to the rule rather than any indication of a late cinematic renaissance for him.  Douglas suffers from a rather cartoonish and underwritten role, a sharp contrast from his intricately realised Liberace in Behind the Candelabra.  The only small mis-step is Kevin Kline, who just isn't quite on the same cinematic level as the other three, his casting looking suspiciously like the backup choice after Bill Murray declined.

I can't think of anything interesting to say about this.  I like Morgan Freeman's jacket I guess.
By the climax we're up to our knees in syrupy bullshit as the men finally arrive at the predestined emotional endpoints that've been telegraphed since the first ten minutes. This is a film with zero surprises, dull visuals and a condescendingly obvious message; a film with all the rough and interesting edges sandpapered away with the aim of producing a bland, forgettable product rather than anything worthwhile.  That said, there are a few things to like.

Prime among them is Mary Steenburgen as the principal love interest.  She's one of those actors that you'd never think to name as a favourite yet improves practically any production she turns up in. It's nice to see her cast in a properly romantic role rather than the sexless, maternally school-marmish roles women her age usually end up saddled with.  Another point in the film's favour is a nice surprise in its treatment of trans people.  There's a gag where Kevin Kline goes into a Vegas bar and unbeknownst to him, starts chatting up a broad-shouldered drag queen.  At this point I was shrinking into my seat, this ancient comedy setup generally leading to embarrassingly shite 'chicks with dicks' material.  But for once the film zigs where it usually zags, even allowing these side-characters a nice trans-positive coda in the final sequence.

That isn't really enough to warrant seeing this though, Last Vegas is about as unremarkable a film as its possible to be.  Your life will not be enriched in anyway by this film, whether you see it for not.  It's just there: now a fact of our lives like the English Channel or Cumulonimbus clouds, like the music of Leona Lewis or Countdown.  Just another title that'll spin past unwatched in the comedies section of Netflix for years and years to come.  That it's maybe not as bad as it could be is faint praise indeed - Last Vegas is the very definition of unremarkable.


Last Vegas is on general release from January 3rd

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