Standing Up, Falling Down

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Standing Up, Falling Down
"See Billy Crystal's name in a line-up like this and you probably expect wise-cracking comedy, but in fact this is a rare straight role for the actor and it illustrates what he's capable of when he really gets to flex his acting muscles." | Photo: Noah M Rosenthal

"In the process of looking for comedy, you have to be deeply honest," Robin Williams once said, and as his own life illustrated, being able to entertain others is no guarantee of being able to overcome one's own sorrows. Scott (Ben Schwartz) can't even get the entertainment part right, or at least not to the point where he can afford to keep living in Los Angeles, so he's forced to return to his hometown in Long Island and move back in with his less-than-thrilled parents. There, with nothing to do but mope around and noise up his sister's remarkably patient boyfriend, he quickly succumbs to malaise. He has no friends left in the area so pours his heart out to his dermatologist - and this proves to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

See Billy Crystal's name in a line-up like this and you probably expect wise-cracking comedy, but in fact this is a rare straight role for the actor and it illustrates what he's capable of when he really gets to flex his acting muscles. There's still a lot of humour but it's mostly observational, and the wit in the script isn't focused on producing zingers but rather on informing us about character. This stands in contrast to scenes in which Scott performs onstage, missing as often as he hits. it's clear that lack of confidence is a big issue for him. That's a problem that Crystal's dermatologist character, Marty, has solved, but he's found his solution in a bottle. Crystal shifts between playful charm and the obnoxious self-centredness so common in alcoholics in a way so light and graceful that the darkness is sometimes shocking, even though on reflection one can always see where it has emerged from.

The friendship between these two troubled men, one still finding his feet and the other barely keeping his balance, is at the core of a film built on small observations and beautifully observed performances. There's a great turn from Grace Gummer as Scott's sister Megan, with whom he shares the kind of banter that's all the more vicious because of the underlying love that makes it safe. For his part, Crystal tones down a role that could easily have become overwhelming and makes room for Schwartz, who doesn't have as much meaty material to work with. Scott is by far the most difficult character, his limited social skills and resentment of those around him making him hard to engage with at first, but director Matt Ratner never lets the film depend on us liking him and over time we become invested in his learning process.

There's a lot of darkness just beneath the surface in this carefully balanced ensemble piece and that shadow lingers even as we move toward an ending that foregrounds themes of forgiveness and understanding. The focus here is more on acceptance and a mutual decision to be patient than on actual resolution. Although the story is rather slight, this gives it a weight that's missing from many similar tales. Where it could easily have fallen into cliché it feels real and human, and that's no small achievement.

Reviewed on: 19 Feb 2020
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Standing Up, Falling Down packshot
An unlikely friendship between a failed comedian and a charming, alcoholic dermatologist helps both confront long-simmering regrets in this warm-hearted buddy comedy.
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