Given the proliferation of old-guy all-star action movies (The Expendables, Red, and the upcoming Grudge Match), it’s surprising that veteran Hollywood has been slow to embrace a less action-intensive variation, the old-guy all-star comedy (see, for one few and far between example, 2000’s Space Cowboys). Just so, rather than breaking out the big guns and creaking muscles, Last Vegas unites famous faces of the ’80s and ’90s to perform a genteel knock-off of The Hangover.
But in its opening moments, Last Vegas reveals that it’s operating on clichés far hoarier than could be stolen from a four-year-old movie. It’s also drawing on cheesy coming-of-age movies and romantic comedies, among others. We first see the Flatbush Four, as the heroes call themselves, as young teenagers on the streets of Brooklyn, repeating their awkwardly worded mantra: “No one calls us names except for us!” Years (and years) later, Billy (Michael Douglas) calls up his buddies Sam (Kevin Kline) and Archie (Morgan Freeman) to let them know he’s finally getting married, to a woman half his age. They insist on heading to Vegas and throwing him a bachelor party to match the parties he organized for them in younger days, though Paddy (Robert De Niro), housebound after the death of his wife, is less enthused about the idea.
Paddy has a long-simmering grudge against Billy for reasons that become clear as the movie proceeds, but apart from that bit of emotional business and the guys’ obligatory grumbling about naps and medication, the movie doesn’t have many ideas about obstacles that might come up on a debauched reunion weekend. Even fewer of its ideas are actually funny. Mostly, the friends get lucky and buy their way through the town (and they have an unspoken safety net in Billy, a successful and wealthy businessman), and there isn’t much comedy in good things happening to blasé if nice-enough people. The Hangover movies, lazy as they are, at least have ideas about the seedy underbelly of Vegas glitz. Last Vegas offers more of an old-school fantasy, where even the most depressing little casino has a pretty, smart lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen) performing to minimal crowds for the sheer fun of it.
Steenburgen is the only woman in the movie whose presence is partially, rather than wholly, symbolic (which, to be fair, puts the movie well ahead of any Hangover installment). She looks like she’s having fun with the boys, mostly with Douglas and De Niro, I’d love to see later-years romantic comedy with her and Kline, the most comedically polished of the talented cast. Looking like a distinguished and easily ruffled owl, he doesn’t have a chance to show off his renowned physical grace, but his sharp-tongued finessing of groaner lines prompts the question: Would Last Vegas maybe have been funnier with more actual comedians on hand?
Of course, Freeman, Douglas, and De Niro have garnered laughs in a handful of other movies, and Freeman is especially game with his limited material here: he drinks Red Bull, babbles, and wisecracks. But Douglas and De Niro look more comfortable handling their more dramatic moments. De Niro in particular does a lot of his trademark glowering; as it turns out, Paddy’s contempt for Billy, despite not being written as comedy, is one of the funniest running bits of the movie (it’s delightfully easy to imagine the real-life De Niro hassling the real-life slickster Douglas).
The PG-13 saltiness, on the other hand, is mostly limp and unbecoming. To its credit, Last Vegas is too pleasant and cute to push its stars into the ongoing gross-out sweepstakes, but it’s so senior-friendly it sometimes borders on condescension. All of the characters are pushing 70, but are commonplace conveniences like automated car locks and cell phones really vexing for this age group? (Like a lot of Hollywood movies about older folks, the screenplay feels like it was written 10 or 20 years ago, not 2013.)
This means the jokes are at once light and sitcommy, but also too prominent and shticky for Last Vegas to work as a full-on dramedy. The movie does best during its nicely understated climax, where the glimmers of the characters’ fears — of aging, of becoming irrelevant — are most visible and closest to poignant, if only briefly. Like most of the old-guy all-star pictures, the movie creates hope for a reunion, not a sequel, but a better movie starring the same talented people.