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Four elderly Vietnam veterans, who busted out of a PoW camp many moons ago, reunite in their twilight years for another daring mission: to escape from a nursing home!
The core premise of director Mark Lamprell’s new comedy Never Too Late – written by Luke Preston – is a quintessential example of what’s known in the movie trade as a “high concept”, meaning a pithy premise that can be written down on space no larger than the back of a matchbox.
It is likely to solicit a “that’s just got to work” response from most viewers. Throw in from the casting couch a bunch of irresistible old-timers – in this instance James Cromwell, Jack Thompson, Roy Billing and Dennis Waterman – and the deal is sealed.
Cromwell plays Bronson, leader of the Chain Breakers: the group of aforementioned vets who used to be valorous men but are now crotchety stumblebums. Thompson is Angus, a former Brownlow-winning footy player now experiencing onset of Alzheimer’s; Billing is tough guy Wendell, who uses a wheelchair and has a son he hasn’t seen in half a century; and Waterman is Jeremiah, who has only a couple of months to live and longs to take his sailboat for one last voyage.
Needing to escape the Hogan Hills Retirement Home for Returned Servicemen and Women to propose to the love of his life, Norma (Jacki Weaver) – who, like Angus, is also losing her memory – Bronson solicits help from the other blokes by way of a cock-and-bull story he invents. Their former captor Nguyen Tan is in a nursing home across town, he claims rather implausibly (but hey, these men are far from their physical and mental primes), so the time has finally come for them to exact revenge.
The name Tan doesn’t ring a bell to Angus. This prompts a rebuke from Wendell that triggered my first laugh-out-loud response: “Christ almighty,” Wendell says, “don’t you remember that shithouse holiday we had in Vietnam?”
This is a strategy Preston uses several times to extrapolate laughs: contrasting the men’s past, and/or former greatness, with a line or situation that cuts them down to size.
During the same meeting, for instance, talking in the group’s ad hoc war room (the nursing home supply room, where cleaning products line the shelves), Bronson delivers a chest-beating peptalk recalling how they once “clawed our way out of the deepest, darkest shithole that Nam could throw us in”, and how “I for one am not gonna let old age and this pissant nursing home stand in our way!” Unmoved, Jeremiah responds by noting: “Last week Angus got trapped in a toilet cubicle.”
Lamprell and Preston thankfully doesn’t umm and ahhh about whether the old boys will get the band back together and try to bust out; they decide on the inevitable almost immediately. Their mission, if you can call it that, operates on a small scale: for instance, a couple of the men investigate a room for its escape potential, while another provides a decoy.
At one point the eccentric and very old Hank (Max Cullen) bursts on to the scene, flustered and spitting profanities (elderly people swearing being of course a limitless reserve for comedy) and big-noting himself as “the only one to break out of this hellhole and get away with it!” His angry, bluster-filled, fist-shaking rant hilariously loses its focus, accidentally (d)evolving into a message about the importance of brushing your teeth and having a hearty breakfast.
If Never Too Late sounds escapade-filled and knowingly absurd, Lamprell (who previously directed A Few Less Men and co-wrote one of my favourite Australian films) sets out to round its corners, turning a potentially pointy farce into a play-to-the-back-rows experience with gloppy sentiment splashed every which way. Angela Little’s overbearing and overused score turns some moments cheesy almost instantly, and the song selections – which include covers of Mad World, I Can See Clearly Now and House of the Rising Sun – don’t help, feeling jukeboxy and directorially obvious.
The film’s emotional moments never feel hard-earned, and sometimes resort to a kind of slushy shamelessness – for example deploying a letter-writing voiceover followed later by the presentation of envelopes marked “return to sender”. But it’s difficult – probably impossible – not to be charmed by the principal characters and their actors, all of whom can oscillate to pathos quickly.
As a lark about late-age shenanigans, in the key of something like The Bucket List and Going in Style (but better than both), Never Too Late coasts along fine – and occasionally the writing and delivery punches through the cheesiness. In one scene, a hand is tenderly placed just above Roy Billing’s knee, by somebody sharing with him a special moment. To which the actor responds: “Can’t feel anything in that leg.”
Sweet, grumpy old men are funny – and this film is full of them.
• Never Too Late opens in Australian cinemas on 22 October
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Never Too Late review – Jack Thompson and Jacki Weaver star in escape-from-the-nursing-home romp | Australian film