Film Reviews

A Brief Appreciation of the 1979 Version of Going in Style Starring George Burns

There is a scene in 1979’s Going in Style where George Burns cries while looking at his old family photos but then accidentally pisses himself, forcing an embarrassing trek to the nearest bathroom where he bitterly laments, “Crying and pissing in your pants, like a three-month-old baby. I guess the whole damn cycle is complete now.”

I don’t know if this scene survived into the new remake starring Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, but all signs point to no, not when THR summarized the remake’s connection to its cinematic predecessor as follows: “Trading dry humor and pathos for sitcom beats and sentimentality, this adaptation of Martin Brest’s 1979 film (based on a short story by Edward Cannon and starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) turns a quiet, character-driven piece into a run-of-the-mill collection of high jinks, oldster style.”

The general plot of the two identically titled films is the same: three old blue collar retirees decide to rob a bank. However, while the remake, directed by Zach Braff of all people, looks as if it will build to the bank robbery as a climactic comedy setpiece the original is over and done with all of that by the 35-minute market. The remaining hour is a procession of small victories followed by swift defeats, as mortality makes its presence felt and clouds over the three septuagenarians’ ill-gotten gains.

It’s technically considered a comedy. We know because the above trailer tells us so. Plus, in the actual film the composer keeps throwing jaunty, Vaudeville-esque music at us, as if aggressively screaming, “Three old men robbing a bank? Now I’ve seen everything! What! They’re going to Vegas to gamble with their stolen money? Now I’ve really seen everything!” But it doesn’t really feel funny. Instead, Going in Style is impressively bittersweet, putting its plot into motion not because the men have a score to settle with greedy pension-cutters (as is the way in the remake) but simply because trying to steal some money seems preferable to another lonely day at the park.

After the release of Going in Style, Burns lived for another 17 years, and Carney for another 24. Poor Strasberg, though, didn’t even make it another full three years.

It’s actually astounding how quickly it all comes together. Burns seemingly decides to rob a bank on a whim, and has talked his friends Carney and Strasberg (in his final film appearance) into it before we’ve even caught all of their character’s names (Burns is Joe, Carney is Al and Strasberg is Willie). From that point forward, it’s a classic wish-fulfillment plot, offering it target audience of older viewers a window into how fun it might be to rob a bank and get away with it (or so we hope) and then do anything you wanted with the piles of cash. The experience puts the literal dance back into Al’s step, causing Joe to happily observe, “Feels great to be doing something, huh.”

The whole things plays out  like a more somber version of The Bucket List where the characters’ list consists solely of two items: 1. Rob a bank. 2. Figure out what to do with the cash after robbing the bank. Not surprisingly, that last item quickly turns into helping out the kids and grandkids, solely represented here by Al’s mechanic/bartender son and adorable granddaughter. However, you don’t call something Going in Style and not deliver on the central promise of the title. Thus, not all of the characters make it, but they go out having fun, re-finding a purpose in life and getting to experience the type of things the rest of the world commonly assigns to people half their age.

Have you ever seen Going in Style? Did you, like me, not even know the new film was a remake until recently? Let me know in the comments.


    1. It’s a slightly more dramatic role for Burns than usual. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still him doing the classic George Burns shtick, but he occasionally gets to stretch out a little more, emotionally, in this one. Interestingly, this was actually one of two movies he put out in 1979. The other was Just You and Me Kid, which sounds like a more traditional Burns comedy. IMDB logline: “George Burns stars as a former vaudevillian who befriends a young runaway, played by 14-year old Brooke Shields, who is being chased by drug dealers.”

  1. I saw this in theaters when it came out and I was 13 … way too young for it but I admired the old guys’ style. I’ve always remembered it fondly. I watched it again recently, age 56, and I enjoyed it a lot more because I understood a lot more. I haven’t watched the remake because there was no way it could improve on the original.

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