Hollywood movies get a lot of things wrong: Midwesterners, marriage, transforming robots. But Last Vegas reminds us that they're also terrible at depicting old age. It's not that studios don't make movies starring older actors—Escape Plan just came out—but when they do, they often paint a picture of the so-called golden years that feels awfully condescending. Nobody's asking Last Vegas to be Amour, last year's somber Oscar-winning drama about an elderly couple at the doorstep of death, but did it have to be so cuddly, so adorable, so blithely uninterested in aging as anything other than a prolonged Leno joke? What's supposed to be a silly, sweet comedy about lifelong friends reuniting for one last fun time turns out to be a stupid, vaguely insulting look at the AARP years.
Even more annoying, it stars actors we like a lot, even when they're in disposable junk like this. Last Vegas's four main characters grew up in Brooklyn but have since moved to different parts of the country and rarely see each other. But when the gang's de facto leader, slick wheeler-dealer Billy (Michael Douglas), impulsively proposes to his much-younger girlfriend, the pals decide to meet up in Vegas for an impromptu bachelor party. Billy's buddies include Archie (Morgan Freeman), who's been slowed by a stroke, and Sam (Kevin Kline), who now lives in Florida, miserable to be surrounded by all these old people when he still feels vibrant. The toughest to corral is Paddy (Robert De Niro), Billy's best friend who hates the guy because he skipped his beloved wife's funeral a year ago.
Soon, the friends find themselves in Vegas, but not before we get an idea of what director Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure movies, Phenomenon) and screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) have in store. By the time the self-anointed "Flatbush Four" touch down in Sin City, there's already been a decent amount of being-old-sure-sucks groaners involving Viagra, new cars' high-tech features, and flabby geezer flesh. This is all done in a completely gentle tone—Last Vegas doesn't have a mean bone in its body—but the movie's milquetoast comedic streak is precisely what's so annoying about the film. They've got four great older actors in a comedy about mortality and regret—and all they can think to have them do is refer to that popular online search engine as "the Google."
Though its advertising might make you think of a pseudo-codger revamp of The Hangover, Last Vegas is more interested in niceties like true love and hard-earned wisdom than in outrageous comedic shocks. (If the movie were really gutsy, it would make something of Sam's loving wife's apparently completely legitimate request that he get laid while he's in Vegas so he can feel alive again.) And it encourages its stars to coast on their personae. Douglas, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, has lost a little of his old sharkish qualities, but he can still bite into a good role: Just watch him in Behind the Candelabra. But as the playboy Billy who's finally settling down, he's mostly a benign Gordon Gekko with whiter teeth. Douglas and his costars have their funny moments—they can do this shtick in their sleep—but too often they settle into a dumbed-down groove that's beneath them. (Kline has a blowjob joke that epitomizes everything that's wrong with Last Vegas: He delivers his punchline with perfect comic timing, but the bit is so calculatingly "naughty" that the execution hardly matters.)
Last Vegas never reaches rapping-grandma levels of ageist insensitivity, although the four guys' foray into bikini-competition judging gets close. (If you thought De Niro had to do some humiliating things in those Fockers sequels, wait 'til you get a load of this movie.) For the most part, Last Vegas just peddles "You're only as old as you feel!" bromides, which are demeaning in their own way. Basically, the Flatbush Four engage in youthful activities—blowout parties, hanging out at sexy dance clubs—and show the youngsters how it's done. It's not that older people have to be confined to wheelchairs and nursing homes in movies—it's that the constant "Look at the old guys doing funny stuff!" obnoxiousness is hardly any more dignified. It's just geezer minstrelsy.
If it weren't for the cast, it would all seem incredibly embarrassing. But oddly, the only person on screen who doesn't come across as a cliché is Mary Steenburgen's Diana, a former tax accountant who decided to move to Vegas to become a singer after being downsized. In the world of Last Vegas, Diana's just a love interest for Billy and Paddy to fight over childishly, but Steenburgen makes her tough, funny, and sexy. When she's in the film, Last Vegas actually seems to be about the realities of getting older: wondering what it was all for, trying to find some sort of contentment when options become more limited, refusing to let the growing aches and pains define who you are. None of that is presented as dour or self-pitying—Steenburgen gives it all a knowing, playful wink. By comparison, everybody else around her is just an old fart.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.