“So, I kind of missed you,” says Doc (Christopher Walken), on seeing his old friend Val (Al Pacino) after some 28 years. They assess one another (“You look like shit”), hug briefly, look predictably pained, then say outright what you see already, that maybe one of them has said too much.
The bromantic setup has a backstory, revealed in little bits over the course of Stand Up Guys, having to do with Val going to prison after a job went wrong. That job would have been robbery, or some other smalltime mobsterish activity, and when it went wrong, someone dies, as tends to happen during such activities. It happens that the someone was the son of the man who hired Val and Doc, a man bearing the colorful moniker of Claphands (Mark Margolis). He intends that Val will pay the price, and he’s assigned the contract to Doc, whom he’s bullying with threats against his granddaughter, Alex (Addison Timlin), who doesn’t actually know who Doc is, but sees him every day when he comes to eat eggs at the diner where she works.
The contract, such as it is, creates tension between the guys, because they both understand the stakes and appreciate the stand up repercussions of both doing and not doing the job. They also mean to spend a great last night together, reliving the olden days when they were young and virile and even more reckless than they might be now. And so, Val and Doc embark on one of those wild adventures typical of recent high school movies, except that they’re really old, which provides for much hilarity.
Or it would, if the premise was in any way hilarious. It might have seemed that way on paper, the way that rapping grandmothers once seemed funny on paper, but in practice, Val and Doc’s wannabe-antic episodes are just tedious. They go to a whorehouse, they free a third buddy, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), from a nursing home, they help themselves to meds at a pharmacy and go montage-clothes-shopping, and then they take a trip to the hospital, where they run into Hirsch’s nurse daughter, Nina (Juliana Marguiles). She remembers the guys, sort of, or at least she remembers that when she was 10, Doc tossed her into the air and caught her, a sensation she recalls as pleasurable (“like I was flying”). Now, though, Nina’s called on to treat Val’s ridiculous erection, brought on by a handful of Viagra pills — that is, one of those wait-for-it cause-and-effect bits you’re asked to anticipate for long minutes.
The other bits are less protracted, but no less predictable. One of the guys is an especially awesome lover, such that his 10 minutes in the brothel produce the eternal gratitude of the beautiful women who service him (“Vat is the vord in English?” whimpers his Russianate prostitute (Kathryn Winnick) as he makes his way out the door as she hangs all over him, “Love?”). Doc is kind of a father figure to the madame, Wendy (Lucy Punch), also daughter of the prior proprietor: rather than head upstairs, he has a drink with her in her office, where they swap philosophical clichés: “My mother always told me, ‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got.'”
That notion is one of many bromides in this boy-bonding exercise, though it is one that unfortunately points to what the movie does not do, which is any sort of “best.” Repeatedly, it conjures rationales so the guys can drive fast or shoot someone or charm a lady. By the time Val and Doc are rescuing a rape victim, Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito), then offering her the tied-up offenders so she can enact her own personal and rather ferocious retribution, you may be less inclined to care what happens to whom tan to wonder what either Pacino or Walken had in mind when he signed up for this.
Early on, when Val first glimpses Doc’s drab and tiny apartment, the film offers a semblance of a reason for the characters’ nostalgia. A few old photos suggest that as young men, they spent their time together, wreaking havoc as a crew. Val’s prison term sent them into separate tailspins, such that neither of them recovered or found another best friend (Val says more than once that Doc’s apartment reminds him of his prison cell). As they come back together, though, Doc and Val aren’t able to relive or recover the past as much as they’re left regarding it — like it’s someone else’s not-so-well-remembered experience, perhaps a movie they’d be better off forgetting.