If nothing else, Just Getting Started (currently in commercial release) tells the world that writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) enjoys being an old man. The film, an amiable and instantly forgettable comedy, offers an idealized picture of semiretirement, with sexagenarian and septuagenarian characters enjoying easygoing lives filled with sex, golf, and gambling. It takes place at an upscale gated community in Palm Springs, California, and for the first half hour, Shelton does little but bask in how nice it is to live there. To call Just Getting Started laid-back would be an understatement; the movie is a slow golf cart ride into complacency. At the screening I attended, one man in the audience stretched out on three chairs (his row was empty) and proceeded to take a nap. I think he had the right idea.
Morgan Freeman stars as Duke, the friendly and brazenly corrupt community manager. Duke freely takes money from his office’s petty cash box and uses it at poker games and to buy fancy golf clubs. No one seems to mind that he abuses his power—Duke has the whole community on his side. During the day a trio of male friends follow him pretty much everywhere (this detail is supposed to show that everybody loves Duke, but I found these men kind of sad), and at night he’s chased after by three separate women (including the late Glenne Headly in her final performance). Freeman doesn’t exactly delight in the material—that would suggest he’s engaged with it on more than a superficial level—but he brings enough charisma to his part to elicit a few grins.
At the start of the film Shelton reveals that someone wants to have Duke killed; he doesn’t reveal why until later on, and he keeps the identity of Duke’s killer a secret for much of the movie as well. These delayed revelations might provide some suspense, except that Shelton doesn’t hint at them at all for long stretches at a time. He devotes more attention to Duke’s rivalry with a new resident (Tommy Lee Jones) over the romantic affections of an efficiency expert played by Rene Russo. When Shelton was at his best, his work suggested contemporary updates of Howard Hawks films, depicting male camaraderie with vigor and frankness, and Just Getting Started shows he can still evoke Hawks when he puts in a little effort. The romantic rivalry (which recalls a comic subplot of Hawks’s Hatari!) reflects a certain optimism, with Shelton framing Freeman and Jones as equals who can settle their differences fairly.
Just Getting Started isn’t as generous to its female characters. The trio of women who chase after Duke aren’t completely stupid—they’re all aware that Duke isn’t monogamous, and none of them seems to mind—yet Shelton can’t seem to imagine them having any interests beyond wine and sex. Russo’s character is more rounded, displaying a moral dimension that the other supporting characters lack, though Shelton turns her into a stock figure in the film’s final act, an uninspired turn into action comedy.
The climactic 20 minutes of Just Getting Started are so lazily directed that I wondered why Shelton bothered trying to put action into the movie at all. The film’s modest strengths lie in its inaction, the passages when Shelton drops the veneer of telling a story and just lets the characters hang out. As in Hawks’s later work (or, for that matter, the later movies of Robert Altman and Eric Rohmer), the relaxed pace invites you to enjoy spending time with interesting people with stories to tell. Jones’s character has a cool backstory, having traveled the world first in the military and then as a business investor; he also recites poetry and paints. The film hints at the charming character study it could have been whenever Jones reflects on his past. It’s in these moments that Just Getting Started becomes more than a commercial for old age—Shelton delivers a sense of nostalgia and loss, giving the film unexpected depth.