Ultimately pleasant if slight, “Standing Up, Falling Down” arrives at that modest impact despite the fact that the major characters here insist on behaving in ways that are meant to be funny, but too often land more in the “obnoxious” zone. This seriocomedy, with Ben Schwartz as a failed comedian and Billy Crystal as a wacky dermatologist he befriends, is actually stronger in its middleweight dramatic departments than it is in convincing us that these newly-met buddies are really good-hearted charmers — as opposed to tactless misanthropes who’ve quite understandably alienated most of those around them.
A different movie might have actually explored that second, rather bleak reality. But “Standing Up” wants to be cute and heartwarming. That it eventually succeeds, more or less, pays testament to producer turned first-time feature helmer Matt Ratner’s adept handling, and a cast that does their considerable best with iffy material. The screenplay by Peter Hoare is a step up from that of his prior indie feature, “Killing Hasselhoff,” but still leans too heavily on supposedly outre humor that just isn’t very original or sharp.
Nonetheless, thanks largely to the performers (and Crystal in particular), the end result is diverting enough if unmemorable. Having debuted at Tribeca last spring, the film ends its festival tour this week in Palm Springs, then gets a theatrical release from Shout! starting Feb. 21. Its primary exposure will no doubt be on the small screen, starting with a simultaneous on-demand launch.
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Crawling back home to Long Island after failing to make it as a professional comic is Scott (Ben Schwartz), whose self-pity is unalleviated by the fact that neither his variably supportive parents (Debra Monk, Kevin Dunn) or acidly sparring sister (Grace Gummer) ever thought he had a chance. (Nor do we: Both at the start, when he’s seen bombing on stage, and later when he’s supposed to be killing it, Scott’s act is tepid at best.) Perhaps even worse, four years ago he “skipped town like an a–hole” in pursuit of that elusive dream, abandoning the perfect girlfriend (Eloise Mumford as Becky) who’s since moved on with her life and married someone else. Indeed, everyone seems to have arrived at a viable grown-up life with spouse and gainful employment, save Scott.
Catching a drink with one such responsible-adult old friend, he has a rude but piquant encounter with a drunk older bar patron who recommends a dermatologist after noticing a stress rash on Scott’s arm. That skin doc and the drunk turn out to be the same: Marty (Crystal), a twice-widowed unhappy loner not on good terms with his grown kids, who wiles away his non-working hours on booze and karaoke despite having little talent for handling either.
The two men meet again by accident at a remote acquaintance’s wake. They disrupt that solemn occasion with loud banter that really isn’t funny, even managing to knock over an elderly lady as they beat a shamed retreat. Clearly, they’re meant for each other. Many Jager shots later, they’ve bonded, having exchanged the basics of why they’re both miserable and generally disliked. They do entertain one another, if no one else.
Though briskly paced, “Standing Up” is a bit uneventful. The only things that really happen are that Scott does a local comedy gig, has an abortive reunion with the somewhat inexplicably still-smitten Becky, and meets a potential Ms. Right (Caitlin McGee). Marty tries to force a reconciliation with his estranged son (Nate Corddry) in the sole scene with any real heft. There’s a climactic tragedy kick-dropped into the narrative that theoretically allows some kind of collective catharsis. But the story and character psychology here lack sufficient substance to make us feel, as we’re intended, that the main characters have truly changed each other for the better.
That said, the performers do often provide their own degrees of drollery and shading, lending nuance even when the writing is less than inspired. Monk, David Castaneda, Nik Sadhnani, and others contribute pleasing comic sparks in roles that probably didn’t suggest much potential on the page. And though his character in many ways seems the most contrived, Crystal pulls it off, making Marty a credible mix of good intentions, bad behavior, and naturally deadpan timing. Despite several scenes in which he’s being a loose cannon (esp. as a guy frequently at risk of being eighty-sixed from his favorite bar), his turn is primarily marked by a judicious understatement that elevates the entire film’s game.
Ratner appears to have absorbed the same less-is-more wisdom, and if “Standing Up” consistently feels familiar, it nevertheless resists emphasizing the more broadly comedic or maudlin elements you might expect. Its smooth craftsmanship extends to all packaging elements, with an above-average attention to creating an inviting warmth from the visual contributors, while David Schwartz provides an appropriately low-key, acoustic-guitar-based score.