The shrewdest career move in Hollywood is to croak while in your prime. That way, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, you remain a star forever. Actors unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice must face the indignity of desuetude—the long slide from stardom to supporting roles to made-for-television movies to summer stock to retrospective interviews with Robert Osborne on TCM, to, ultimately, the Motion Picture Home.

In sexist Tinseltown, actresses are the first to receive their pink slips. Around 40, just as they enter their creative primes, they’re put out to pasture. The handful who manage to sustain their careers are required to become parodies of themselves (preternatural ingénue-kooks Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton) or Madame Tussaud effigies (Cher). Actors savvy enough to produce and/or direct their own projects (Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood) manage to stay in the game longer, along with the rare time-defying flukes (Sean Connery, Michael Caine). The rest follow the ladies down the chute to oblivion, unless they are lucky enough to find employment in one of Hollywood’s more recently invented genres—the geezer picture.

Odd couple Jack Lemmon and the late Walter Matthau pioneered the genre, withering from their relatively youthful initial teaming in Billy Wilder’s 1966 The Fortune Cookie through several more features to the wheezy Grumpy Old Men pictures and the ghastly Out to Sea. Other codger vehicles include 1985’s Cocoon and its 1988 sequel, the 1986 Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas film Tough Guys, and the current Space Cowboys.

The Crew, a farce about mobsters eking out their twilight years on Miami’s South Beach, opens up a subgenre—the faux-geezer movie—featuring actors cast in roles considerably older than their actual ages. Written by Golden Girls scripter Barry Fanaro, the film chronicles a wiseguy quartet’s machinations to avoid eviction from the Raj Mahal Hotel, the last retirement dwelling on yuppified South Beach. Following a 1968 New Jersey-set prologue depicting the mobsters in their heyday, Fanaro and director Michael Dinner leap more than three decades to show their protagonists struggling to survive, economically and physically, as their days draw to a close.

Bobby Bartellemeo (Richard Dreyfuss), the brains of the outfit, remorsefully strives to locate and make peace with the daughter he abandoned when she was a child. Pugnacious Joey “Bats” Pistella (Burt Reynolds) has been fired from every Burger King (heavy product placement) in Miami for abusing customers. Mike “the Brick” Donatelli (Dan Hedaya), the group’s dumbbell, works as a mortician’s cosmetologist, transforming bodies into powdered and lipsticked mummies. Tony “the Mouth” Donato (Seymour Cassel), a former ladies’ man, has become a dance instructor for bored widows.

Bats comes up with a scheme to save the foursome’s abode. He persuades his pals to steal a homeless man’s corpse and plant it in the hotel’s lobby, then shoot the body several times to suggest that the man was the victim of a violent murder. Initially, the plot works. Media coverage of the bogus killing scares away prospective tenants, and the landlord offers the Mafiosi rent reductions and cash bonuses for signing long-term leases. Unfortunately, the cadaver turns out to be that of the senile father of a big-time drug lord (Miguel Sandoval) bent on vengeance. Attempting to escape extermination, the wiseguys become involved with a hardhearted stripper (Jennifer Tilly), her estranged stepmother (Lainie Kazan), and a pair of feuding police detectives (lissome Carrie-Anne Moss and loathsome Jeremy Piven).

Although more wizened than his cohorts, top-billed Dreyfuss is only 52. Three months younger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, he looks more like the action hero’s father. (In fact, he could easily be mistaken for a contemporary of my father, a remarkably spry 88-year-old who still puts in a 40-hour work week.) Shackled by a thankless, sentimental straight-man role and forced to deliver an excessive amount of off-screen narration, Dreyfuss is, as usual, irritatingly ingratiating.

Cast in a part that, for once, justifies his terrible toupees, Reynolds, 64, starts out strong but soon fades into the background, a victim of the excessively plotted, overpopulated screenplay. Sixty-five-year-old Cassel, whose character speaks only after having sex, is similarly shortchanged. A consistent scene-stealer, Hedaya, 60, garners most of the laughs as the thick Brick, even though he looks several decades younger than the role he’s been assigned. Tilly, whose career agenda appears to be reversing the last 40 years of feminist progress, plays yet another pneumatic, helium-voiced bimbo, but Kazan manages to transform a potentially offensive ethnic stereotype—she’s rich, frosted-haired widow Pepper Lowenstein—into a surprisingly endearing character.

Although trashed by many reviewers, The Crew is a cut above the current run of comedies, a welcome change from the flood of trivial dating pictures and gross-out romances. If you can put up with the fart, pee, and failing-virility jokes endemic to codger pictures, you’ll be rewarded with some gratifyingly subversive touches, including the screenplay’s assumption that audiences would rather root for geriatric mobsters than ascendant yuppies. Fanaro has a flair for tossing off one-liners. (When the wiseguys express their gratitude to an illicit-arms dealer for supplying them with a rifle, he replies, “Thank the Republicans.”) And the writer also invents a casually charming scene in which Cassel and Kazan dance to Dean Martin’s recording of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”

The Crew is unexpectedly well-crafted. Juan Ruiz Anchía’s crisp cinematography contributes some virtuoso sequences, including a dizzyingly protracted Steadicam tracking shot through a restaurant (an homage to Scorsese and De Palma) and a weird, frenetic episode depicting the flight of a rat with a blazing torch tied to its tail. Although the film’s protagonists shuffle along, Nicholas C. Smith’s deft editing never lets the pace flag; he includes a witty pastiche of the Godfather movies by intercutting a series of revenge killings with Tilly’s gyrations in a strip club.

I’m not prepared to stake my critical reputation on endorsing this frivolous, uneven comedy, but I left it in a far better mood than I have most of this summer’s punishing new releases. CP