“Just Getting Started” is described on IMDb as “a two-hander action comedy” in the vein of “Midnight Run.” But anyone can see within five minutes that this mild and dawdling picture from writer-director Ron Shelton is the sort of trifle meant for a retirement-age audience who just want to spend a pleasant and uneventful hour-and-a-half with a few name actors of a certain age. There’s very little comedy here and even less action.
This is the first Shelton feature since the ill-fated “Hollywood Homicide” in 2003, and he stays close to what made his name with his most notable movie, “Bull Durham”: a sports theme that is set off by some male-female repartee. The film begins “somewhere in New Jersey” where a mob wife sees Morgan Freeman’s Duke on TV playing golf at a resort in Palm Springs. She seems to be ordering a hit on him, but this scene is so awkwardly written and played that it feels like it was a last-minute addition that was shot very hastily.
Freeman’s Duke is very much a Shelton male protagonist in that he is fond of himself and very fond of quoting “wise” sayings from famous writers. Duke runs the resort, which is called the Villa Capri, in a very loose way that allows him much time for golf and for sex antics with a harem of women that includes the late Glenne Headly in one of her final roles, the juicy and game Sheryl Lee Ralph, and the gravel-voiced Elizabeth Ashley. Headly is forced to utter the line, “I like a good flocking from time to time,” to the ever-smooth Freeman.
But there’s a new alpha male at the Villa when Tommy Lee Jones’s Leo comes to stay, and this stokes Duke’s competitive side. They play poker (Leo wins) and golf and chess and many other competitive games, all while Duke’s three women look on with interest. “There is new food on the buffet!” cries Ralph’s character Roberta when she sees Leo.
Both Duke and Leo are set on winning the attention of the uptight Suzie, played by the ever-lovely and likable Rene Russo. Suzie wears her hair in a tight ponytail and carries a little dog around with her, and she tells Duke that she has gone through two divorces and is now married to her job. Suzie has been sent to fire Duke from running Villa Capri, or at least to rein him in, but he works to winning her over to his side.
Freeman has been given the duty of announcing the picture’s title in a line of dialogue to Jones: “You and I…we’re just getting started!” he says, in that rich voice that his earned him so much money and acclaim. In theory, Freeman and Jones are a good team because Freeman, like the character he is playing, is somewhat pleased with himself (justifiably), while Jones is clearly pleased about nothing at all.
But there is both too much plot in “Just Getting Started” and too little. Every now and again, there will be a scene where Duke’s life is threatened, and there is even a sequence that could qualify as a car chase if you are using the loosest possible definition of that term. Like everything else in “Just Getting Started,” this car chase takes place at a pace that seems slow and even poky. This is a film that spends a lot of time on a golf course, and this is also a film that looks like it was a paid vacation for its players.
“Just Getting Started” is so lackadaisical that it even has time for a short Johnny Mathis concert midway through, and that 1950s make-out master still has his pure tone as he sings “Winter Wonderland” for the assembled cast. There’s a bit of a kidnapping plotline thrown in toward the end of the film, but it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously.
There is a moment during the conclusion of “Just Getting Started” where Leo pays tribute to Suzie by saying, “She is a woman of substance and gravitas.” And then Leo stops for a moment and mimes being pleased with himself and repeats the word “gravitas,” as if he is in love with this word and also in love with himself for using it.
“Gravitas” really isn’t such an unusual word choice, but in this movie it signals just how rare and wise a male Ron Shelton character is supposed to be. Your mileage may vary on just how irritating this sort of self-satisfaction is to you, but it keeps “Just Getting Started” from attaining even its own very modest ambitions as an entertainment.