If you put Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers) and Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog, Parks and Recreation) in a room, one would expect a laugh out comedy or something resembling that notion. Director Matt Ratner, working with a nuanced Peter Hoare screenplay, doesn’t veer from the actors’ aforementioned skill sets. But life is is a comedy, drama, and tragedy all rolled into one, and the poignant and humanistic Standing Up, Falling Down refreshingly covers all those bases.
Scott Rollins (Ben Schwartz) is a comic who, after leaving friends and family behind some years ago, returns to Long Island after a failed run in Los Angeles. Moving back home with his mother (Debra Monk) and less than thrilled dad (Kevin Dunn) is embarrassing for Scott, since his decision to leave his girlfriend Becky (Eloise Mumford) and strike out on his own is one he possibly regrets. Becky has moved on with a loving husband (John Behlmann), and even Scott’s sarcastic sister Megan is flourishing in her own life with security guard boyfriend Ruis (David Castañeda).
During a trip tip to his neighborhood watering hole Scott meets Marty (Billy Crystal), a charming alcoholic who, when inebriated, has no conception of boundaries. Scott, in need of a bit of company, doesn’t mind Marty’s gregarious nature, and when he bumps into him the next day (Scott has hives and Marty is a dermatologist), the pair form a gradual bond.
Marty, with his wit and extroverted nature, is the perfect foil for Scott, whose introversion is probably due to all the self imposed stress he’s placed on his life. Scott needs a mentor and a pal, and Marty, who we come to learn has a complex relationship with his two kids (Nate Corddry, Caitlin McGee), simply needs a friend. Jill Hennessy (Crossing Jordan), has a small role as Vanessa, a woman who becomes smitten by Marty’s joie de vivre.
The coming of age story of an individual who returns home to reclaim his or her inner strength is a tried, true, and often cliched tale. Based on the likability of the leads and the innate banter between Marty and Scott, an innocuous, feel good and funny tale could have made Standing Up, Falling Down a more than pleasurable watch. Director Matt Ratner and screenwriter Peter Hoare, however, explore much darker and ultimately more human terrain with their tale.
Marty’s pain is absolutely immeasurable, and Crystal is fearless in his exploration of a man who is essentially coming apart at the seams. The story devotes a healthy amount of time in exploring Marty’s journey outside of his own friendship with Scott, and the film’s moniker ultimately addresses its two-handed nature (Scott is “standing up” and Marty is “falling down”).
Crystal delivers the film’s standout performance, and one wonders why this iconic actor and director (he helmed the first rate baseball feature 61* and the underrated comedy romantic comedy Forget Paris) has not given more straight up dramatic performances.
That said, the movie is simply not an ode to what Crystal can do, as Ben Schwartz dutifully serves as the film’s emotional anchor. The ensemble, while supporting the two leads, also deliver wonderful work in their respective roles, bringing a ton of engagement even in the slightest of moments (Gummer is particularly wonderful as the loving yet playfully annoying sister).
During one pivotal sequence (set near the ocean) between Scott and Marty, Ratner could have extended the moment to simply tug on our heart strings, and even if he let the emotion linger for another several minutes, it could have worked. Instead, he cuts to another sequence, eschewing mawkish sentimentality in the process. Although it’s a small creative decision amidst a universe of choices, it displays Ratner’s focus on getting to the heart of the story sans any manipulative flourishes.
Standing Up, Falling Down is an often funny and occasionally brutal look at friendship and family, and it’s great to know that for 91 minutes Billy Crystal and Ben Schwartz are leading the way. Comedy is no laughing matter, but both of them know how to register a smile or two, even if life tells us otherwise.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Standing Up, Falling Down hits theaters and On Demand February 21.