For viewers with sophisticated taste, "Last Vegas" may invite derision for its premise alone: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline as old buddies reunited in their senior years for a wild Las Vegas trip to celebrate one of their group's recent engagement? Feh. Yet the truth is that you won't see another movie this year with a more obvious reason for its existence: Distributor CBS Films has coyly positioned the comedy as a tamer "Hangover" for the over-sixty set, an ideal form of counter-programming for older theatergoers in the heat of a season riddled with serious-minded awards season fare. It's a slick product not unlike others from the commercially-oriented oeuvre of director Jon Turteltaub, whose other credits include the "National Treasure" franchise. In this case, the spectacle is the cast itself -- legends of the trade possibly past their prime but, like their characters, eager to enjoy the ride.
Like Turteltaub, many of screenwriter Dan Fogelman's credits also invite the perception of a commitment to Hollywood formula ("The Guilt Trip," "Fred Claus"), though it's his experience writing animation ("Bolt," both "Cars" movies) that seems relevant here. By no means a great movie, "Last Vegas" churns along with a blatantly silly, unadventurous plot that owes much to the charisma of its performers running free with absurd vignettes. The essence of the movie's appeal comes down to one throwaway scene: Morgan Freeman, as the genial, seizure-prone Archie, tries Red Bull for the first time at a Vegas bar and loses it ("it's like getting drunk and electrocuted at the same time!"), leading to an innately hilarious moment that's also an unapologetic form of product placement. In a larger sense, "Last Vegas" is an ephemeral commercial product that's eager to please.
Fogel's script methodically establishes its ensemble one step at a time: Slick ladies' man Billy (Douglas) pops the question to youthful girlfriend while delivering the eulogy for an old friend; Sam (Kline) has grown weary of his retired, unadventurous married life; Archie copes with his overly protective, doting son; and straightfaced widower Paddy (De Niro) leads a solitary life. When Sam and Archie pop into Paddy's home and insist he join them on a trip to celebrate Billy's engagement, Paddy's attempts to send them away lead Sam to cynically dub his old pal "Captain Sunshine." As a throwaway line, its comedic possibilities only go so far, but that's also the appeal of "Last Vegas" in a nutshell.
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Needless to say, the cartoonish juxtaposition between Paddy and his ebullient pals takes off not through the dialogue, but the slapstick quality of their performances: De Niro has the gift of self-awareness that makes his deadpan restraint especially amusing as he's increasingly surrounded by the vivid colors of Vegas luxury. Douglas is on autopilot as the confident leader of the group, and the ever-likable Freeman, as usual, barely has to do much to make us care about his screen presence. Kline's snarky, klutzy behavior provides the story with its comedic wild card, particularly since the man's wife launches him on the trip with a condom on the condition that he never reveal the details of his revelry. It's not the first tale of an older man desperately trying to get laid, but Kline tackles the scenario with consistent dopiness. Unlike "The Hangover," there's no complex problem surrounding the weekend that the group must bind together to solve; the very idea of their outing is the plot, and there's a certain innocence to that aim that makes it hard to reject its base appeal.
But "Last Vegas" is only slightly better than a watchable bad movie, particularly when considered in the context of other, far shrewder investigations into the mixture of nostalgia and regret that define the aging process in other movies released this year alone. Jem Cohen's tender portrait of a platonic couple bonding over discussion of art and life in the elegant "Museum Hours" goes to far greater lengths in its attempt at making its characters' emotional struggles into a profoundly relatable (and at times surprisingly funny) conundrum. Roger Michell's "Le Week-end," which has currently wrapped up a festival run ahead of its 2014 release, involves a near-geriatric British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) wandering Paris on a vacation gone awry while going for the jugular in their arguments over the proper direction for their lives. Michell's film in particular gets under your skin with darkly amusing exchanges between the couple that marry the humor with a philosophical sadness and vice versa.
You'll find no such subtleties in "Last Vegas," which follows its cookie cutter plot from one point to another as it careens toward a rudimentary showdown harkening back to Billy and Paddy's childhood rivalry. Every step of the way, "Last Vegas" plays it safe. When Billy befriends a savvy lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen) closer to his own age, the possible romantic developments that could complicate his marriage plans are transparently locked into place. The only real shocker arrives when Paddy emerges as the true, confident leader of the bunch, though it all makes a lot of sense in hindsight: Nobody puts De Niro in the corner. As "Last Vegas" glides along, satisfying expectations while always aiming low, it makes peace with being inoffensively mediocre. Like Vegas itself, the story goes down easy, but its appeal is hard to remember once you leave it behind.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this Friday, "Last Vegas" faces significant competition from "Dallas Buyers Club," but while that movie may have long-term prospects, "Last Vegas" seems well-positioned to do strong business on its opening weekend before teetering off.