The George Burns caper: not a beat missed; Going in Style Starring George Burns, Art Carney, Lee Strasberg. Written and directed by Martin Brest

Their names are Joe, Al, and Willie. Social security keeps them alive, which means they can sit on park benches all day and feed the squirrels. Then Joe gets a 'bright' idea: Why not rob a bank? If they succeed, they'll be rich, or at least richer than they are now. If they fail, according to this tortured reasoning, they might get three years in jail -- free room and board, with 36 months of social security checks waiting then tey get out!

That's the beginning of what proves a sensitive new movie despite its plot's initially irresponsible premise. In synopsis, it sounds like an ordinary 'caper' comedy, with a geriatric twist. In fact, through, it's a great deal more than that -- by virtue of its superb performances, and the compassion brought to the story by filmmaker Martin Brest, whose first commercial feature this is.

On the surface, "Going in Style" is full of comic lines and outlandish situations. Just below the surface, it seeks "relevance" by hinting, illogically, that the robbery may indeed be antisocial, but then, society hasn't done much for our heroes lately, either.

On its deepest and most fascinating level, however, "Going in Style" is neither a farce nor a statement. Rather, it's a fantasy. Notice how the robbery takes place without a hitch. Notice how smoothly they get away. Notice how two of the "gang" manage to multiply their money afterward, so easily it seems almost supernatural.

Put this evidence together, and it becomes clear that "Going in Style" is little concerned about "reality" in the usual movie sense. What counts here is the enthusiasm and initiative of the three main characters -- old guys who refuse to lie down and be still, no matter how much the rest of the world wants them to.

Filmmaker Brest, a man still in his 20s, has fashioned an ode to elderliness. In his universe, the senior citizens can have more life in them all the younger folks -- bankers, gamblers, cops, and what have you -- in sight.

This is not to inflate "Going in Style" into a cosmic parable about the joys of old age. Tragedy strikes more than once during the story, and it hits hard. But again, the first thing you notice is the resilience of those who are left to struggle on -- the humor, the vigor, the refusal to quit or complain. All these qualities are stunningly embodied in the performances of George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. Burns, a lovable "personality" for so long, finally emerges as a first-rate actor in every sense of the term, reaching to extremes of emotion without overstating a single line or missing a single beat. Carney carries on his extraordinary career with similar skill, and Strasberg further consolidates his reputation as a practicing actor, as well as an influential teacher. The supporting roles are also smartly handled by a small cast including Charles Hallahan and Pamela Payton Wright.

Before making "Going in Style," Brest had one other feature to his credit -- a fantastic comedy called "Hot Tomorrows," which can't be shown theatrically because of contractual agreements with the American Film Institute, where it was made. "Hot Tomorrows" is a striklingly assured movie, zeroing in on problems of old age and death, yet finishing with a wild (and wildly life-affirming) twist. From all indications so far, Brest is an uncommonly gifted new filmmaker. A man to watch carefully, as the '80s commence.

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