Total Recall

Movies With Old People Behaving Badly

In this week's Total Recall, we run down some memorable movie seniors gone wild.

by | October 24, 2013 | Comments

Old People

Old people. They might look sweet and harmless, but some of them are up to no good — and some of them, as evidenced in this weekend’s Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, are actually Johnny Knoxville disguised as a senior citizen with a misbehaving nuisance (Jackson Nicoll) for a grandson. Knoxville’s latest endeavor got us thinking about actual retirement-aged stars whose cinematic exploits tended toward the unseemly, and before we knew it, we had an entire list of movies. You know what that means: it’s time to put down your crossword puzzle, grab your Ensure and your Metamucil, and join us for a very old-fashioned Total Recall!

Arsenic and Old Lace


Poor Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant). Not only does he have to worry about bringing his new bride (Priscilla Lane) into a goofball family that includes one brother who’s an ex-con and another who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, he’s also just discovered that his seemingly sweet biddy aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) are secretly in the habit of offing local bachelors by poisoning their wine (with arsenic, natch). In spite of its goulish setup, Arsenic and Old Lace is a comedy — and a fairly funny one at that — which takes its inspiration from the classic Joseph Kesselring play while adding a few touches of its own courtesy of director Frank Capra, who shot it on the quick in 1941 in order to give his family some funds to live on while he was serving in World War II. It’s all, as the New York Times observed, “Good macabre fun.”

The Bucket List


When’s the best time to get up to no good? When you have nothing left to lose. Witness Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), a pair of terminal cancer patients who decide there’s no sense waiting to make their last few wishes come true and bust out of the hospital, hit the road, and get into some shenanigans. It’s pretty mild stuff — a casino here, some caviar there — which reflects The Bucket List‘s generally mild tone and weakness for schmaltz, qualities that tended to annoy most critics but were good for nearly $100 million in box office receipts. Still, even if they were happy to take a few swipes at director Rob Reiner’s ever-softening focus, some scribes found it enough to simply take pleasure in the movie’s impeccable stars. As Richard Roeper put it, “Any filmgoer’s Bucket List should be seeing these two legends playing off one another.”

Get Low


What kind of past drives a man to bushy-bearded solitude and misanthropy? That’s the question at the heart of 2010’s Get Low, a minor-key drama about a small-town pariah (Robert Duvall) whose curious decision to hold himself a funeral before he’s dead and buried stirs up decades of long-buried secrets, assumptions, and lies. While he’s far from the most irredeemable coot on our list — in fact, as it turns out, he’s actually pretty sweet — old Felix Bush spends the movie’s opening acts taking delight in the upbraiding, tormenting, and general discomfort of others. Bolstered by a supporting cast that included Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, Get Low earned the admiration of most critics, including Roger Ebert, who admitted, “After you get to a certain point with an actor, you don’t much care what he does, you just want to watch him doing it. So it is with Duvall and Murray.”

Going in Style


Golden years, shmolden years — for Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney), and Willie (Lee Strasberg), senior citizenry is one long drudge, and they see so little hope for change on the horizon that they decide they might as well go ahead and rob a bank. In spite of its seemingly wacky setup, 1979’s Going in Style is really a bittersweet slice of social commentary, with poignant observations on aging and economic reality in modern America — and then, of course, there are those remarkable leading men, making the most of a unique opportunity to carry a film in the twilights of their spectacular careers. “There are laughs,” admitted the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, “but the prevalent tone is one of discreet compassion, without condescension or sanctimony.”

Gran Torino


Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, doesn’t get into anything particularly untoward in Gran Torino, but he also isn’t the kind of guy you’d necessarily want to pal around with — especially if you happen to be someone other than a grizzled old white Korean war vet who sympathizes with Kowalski’s narrow, jaundiced view of the rapidly changing world around him. He’s kind of a jerk, in other words — but as portrayed by Eastwood, he’s our jerk, and the viewer becomes as eager to accept his slow redemption as they were to turn away from his racist epithets in the movie’s opening moments. Calling the film “a compelling study of anger and violence and the guilt and shame that shadow them,” Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune argued that Eastwood “has sat high in the saddle for decades, but rarely has he ridden so tall as in the driver’s seat of Gran Torino.”

Grumpy Old Men


They both appeared in Oliver Stone’s JFK, but by the early 1990s, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s prolific screen partnership seemed to be on permanent hiatus — they hadn’t really shared a movie since Buddy Buddy in 1981. They finally reunited for the descriptively titled comedy Grumpy Old Men in 1993, and the movie’s $70 million gross — as well as its largely positive reviews — proved their potent comedic chemistry hadn’t grown stale. While the movie’s plot is little more than an excuse for the old sparring partners to antagonize each other and vie for the affections of Ann-Margaret (with quips from crusty old Burgess Meredith for accompaniment), it more than enough for TIME’s Richard Schickel, who chuckled, “Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are awfully good at this sort of thing.”

Harry Brown


While it might resort to lurid violence to get its point across, 2009’s Harry Brown has some rather thoughtful things to say about urban blight and the experience of getting older in modern society — as well as a pointed warning about what can happen to you when you’re part of a group of lawless punks who anger an ex-Marine with nothing left to lose. While it boasted a perfectly chilling Michael Caine in the title role, Harry struck some critics as too bloody and not thought-provoking enough, although for most scribes, just having him on the screen was enough to anchor the film. “Caine, that master of gentle sadness, lets us know Harry immediately as a good man trying to get by — and trying to understand what seems like madness,” mused an appreciative Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times.

My Fellow Americans


Jack Lemmon perfected the art of the cinematic comedy duo in his films with Walter Matthau, but he could be pretty funny with other people, too — and although 1996’s My Fellow Americans is hardly one of his biggest hits (or brightest critical highlights), it does demonstrate how adeptly he could go for laughs even without Matthau around. Admittedly based on a rather flimsy conceit — Lemmon and James Garner play bickering former U.S. presidents who are, for reasons too convoluted to summarize, in danger of being murdered by the current Commander-in-Chief (Dan Aykroyd) — it manages to transcend its narrative shortcomings in spots, thanks to the barbed comedic interplay between its leads. “Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Garner are such pros that they carry the movie smoothly over its dull patches,” wrote an appreciative Stephen Holden for the New York Times. “The chemistry between the two pits Mr. Lemmon’s pious, sourpussed worrywart against Mr. Garner’s expansive, unflappably blithe hedonist.”

Nobody’s Fool


Aside from a little wife-coveting and some petty larceny, Donald Sullivan (Paul Newman) doesn’t get into too much bad behavior during Nobody’s Fool — but on the other hand, the ramshackle state of his life, including the sparse flat he rents from his former grade-school teacher and the cash-under-the-table construction career that’s left him broke and hobbled, is the result of a bad attitude and many willfully poor choices. Still, he’s a charming old devil — especially as played by Newman, whose tenderly nuanced performance helps bring to life the 1993 novel by future Pulitzer-winning author Richard Russo. Rounded out by a marvelous supporting cast that included Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis, Fool earned the admiration of critics like Caryn James of the New York Times, who wrote, “It says everything about Mr. Newman’s performance, the single best of this year and among the finest he has ever given, that you never stop to wonder how a guy as good-looking as Paul Newman ended up this way.”

Oh God! You Devil


One could argue that all of the Oh God! movies depict a senior citizen misbehaving — after all, in the franchise’s first installment, God (George Burns) cheerfully wreaks havoc on a hapless supermarket manager’s (John Denver) life — but it isn’t until the third and final chapter, 1984’s Oh God! You Devil, that Burns finally busted out the red tuxedo jacket to play Beelzebub himself. Unfortunately, audiences failed to turn out as strongly as they had for the other Oh God! movies, and quite a few critics felt it was You Devil‘s script that proved particularly sinful. Janet Maslin of the New York Times cast a mildly dissenting opinion, arguing that it was “commendable for what it doesn’t have — John Denver — as for what it does” and adding, “George Burns goes it alone in Oh God! You Devil, and it turns out that he’s better off that way.”



“Retirement” takes on new meaning in RED, director Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of the graphic novels about a cadre of former CIA spooks whose classification as “Retired and Extremely Dangerous” leaves them pegged for extinction at the hands of a mystery assassin. A cheerfully ludicrous burst of slam-bang violence, RED is distinguished by a tremendous veteran cast that included Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich — and the combined might of their acting prowess was enough for most critics to concede that the $90 million hit was worth seeing, if only for the chance to see Mirren wielding a submachine gun. Mused Kathleen Murphy for MSN Movies, “Although there’s no dearth of spectacular gunplay and fisticuffs in Robert Schwentke’s light-hearted actioner, what makes RED really rock is old-fashioned movie-star style.”

The Sunshine Boys


Herbert Ross behind the cameras, a script by Neil Simon, and a cast that includes Lee Meredith, F. Murray Abraham, and Howard Hesseman — plus George Burns and Walter Matthau starring as a pair of cranky old comedians lured into a reunion in spite of the fact that they hate each other. All the ingredients are there for the 1975 adaptation of Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys to join the ranks of classic squabblin’ comedies — and as far as most critics were concerned, it lived up to that promise with an appealingly wordy screenplay that made the most of its leads’ copious vinegary charms. Calling “a lot of it epically funny and all of it cheerful,” Vincent Canby of the New York Times chuckled, “Mr. Burns, now approaching 80, is old enough to be his co-star’s father, but he works beautifully — Mr. Matthau is so good playing old men, we may never know when he finally becomes one.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.

Finally, here are two of cinema’s meanest old men — Statler and Waldorf:

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