Talk about being acutely aware of one’s demographics. “Last Vegas” takes the easy joke at nearly every opportunity, and it is exactly what makes the movie work. It’s a familiar story line with punched up dialogue (as well as a pair of killer visual gags), delivered by comedy masters. Where action movies are equated with popcorn, “Last Vegas” is comfort food. It’s not terribly good for you, but it sure tastes good.
Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) were best buds as kids in the ‘50s. The Flatbush Four, they called themselves. Life took them in various directions, and the latter three are living in a private hell for various reasons (death of a spouse, failing health, and boredom, respectively). One day, Billy calls them and tells them he’s finally getting married to the lovely 30-something Lisa (Brie Blair). The group decides to get together in Las Vegas to send Billy off in style, but old feelings between Paddy and Billy flare up immediately, and are only further complicated when they meet Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a lounge singer who ignites a similar rivalry to the one Billy and Paddy had when they were kids.
The script, by Dan Fogelman – he wrote “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” but he also wrote “Fred Claus,” so his track record is inconsistent, to be kind – is filled with moments that indicate that Fogelman is readily aware that this is not a ‘reinvent the wheel’ kind of movie. It’s a crowdpleaser, the kind of movie that doesn’t need to be original as long as it’s clever. Everyone knows how it will end, but that hardly matters; the cast is teeming with comedic talent, and they each earn several laughs. Well, except for Douglas. He’s the straight man, so most of the laughs are at his expense (his hair, mostly). Still, Fogelman understands what the script needs to keep the audience engaged (zingers), and delivers them by the pound. The story structure could have used some work, but the snappy one-liners serve as a pretty decent distraction, and the wistful tone that drifts through the movie grounds it nicely.
Make no mistake, though: this is a complete fantasy, and to look at it any other way would be missing the point. It’s actually very self-aware in terms of how it uses the overtly sexual nature of modern-day Vegas in order to titillate the audience, while reminding people that there are simpler, more wholesome ways of dealing with the opposite sex that will net similar, if not better, results. The movie’s greatest strength, though, is the casting. De Niro is the only possible choice to play the gruff but wounded Paddy – the quick bit where he shuts down Douglas in a conversation is one of the movie’s funniest bits – and Freeman gets to let loose in a way that he hasn’t done in years. Kline is probably the only interchangeable part here, but it’s been so long since he’s had a role like this that it’s hard to complain. You also can’t do much better than Steenburgen as the new object of Paddy and Billy’s affections. She’s funny, smart and gorgeous (if not the best lip syncher), so it makes perfect sense that both would want her.
Think of “Last Vegas” as this year’s version of the 2009 adult comedy “It’s Complicated” (though “Vegas” is much, much better). They are middle-aged porn of different stripes, and they’re box office gold this time of the year. The biggest surprise is that they’re releasing it so far ahead of Thanksgiving, because this movie would print money in wide release at the end of November. It will surely do just fine where it is, though; God knows it’s brilliant counterprogramming to “Ender’s Game.”