Matt Ratner’s comedy, Standing Up, Falling Down, often plays out like a doom-laden drama.
Wisecracks abound because the central character is a young Jewish standup comedian trying to break into the limelight. Since he’s having trouble carving out a viable career in a crowded and competitive field, levity inevitably gives way to darker moments.
The film, which opens in Toronto on February 21, starts as Scott (Ben Schwartz) leaves Los Angeles, bound for his parents’ house in Long Island, New York. Success has eluded him, and now he’s cutting his losses. At the age of 34, he’s unemployed and his path forward seems problematic.
As he arrives back home, Scott’s father is busy watching television and greets him indifferently, as if he’s just returned from a walk around the neighborhood. His sister, Megan (Grace Gummer), the manager of a pretzel shop, barely acknowledges Scott. Only Scott’s mother is happy to see him again.
This is the fraught mood that Ratner, in his directorial debut, creates in his workmanlike movie about displacement, disappointment, despondency and, possibly, renewal.
At a bar on Long Island, Scott meets Marty (Billy Crystal), who’s unable to hold his liquor or his bladder. Though outwardly jovial, Marty, 65, is a tortured, lonely soul. Played empathetically by Crystal, he lives alone, his second wife having died, and his son unwilling to take his phone calls. When Scott develops a skin rash, he visits a dermatologist. By chance, he turns out to be Marty, who tells Scott his condition is caused by stress. Marty is right. Scott is simply “overwhelmed” by the situation in which he finds himself. Los Angeles has failed him, and now he’s back to square one.
Scott runs into Marty again at the wake of a mutual friend, and their loneliness brings them together. Scott admits he’s not “feeling funny” lately. Marty acknowledges he doesn’t have much of a life. Could this be the beginning of a friendship?
Back at home, Scott is on the receiving end of a lecture by his father, the owner of a lumber yard who likes puttering around his bungalow. “Enough of this Fantasy Land bullshit,” he says, sharply questioning Scott’s desire to be a comedian. “Go and find a real job.”
As far as Scott is concerned, that’s a serious problem. He dreads the prospect of having to earn a livelihood outside his chosen field, and he can’t come to terms with the possibility that he may have to work for his father again. Schwartz delivers a credible performance as a person who’s down on his luck and may have no choice but to settle for much less.
On an escalator in a mall, Scott encounters his ex-girlfriend, Becky (Eloise Mumford), who’s now married. They chat briefly before parting. In further developments which suggest that things may be finally looking up for Scott, he finds a temporary gig at a local comedy club. In the meantime, he and Marty form a tighter bond.
In another integral scene, Marty knocks on his son’s door, hoping they can reconcile. But Adam (Nate Corddry) rejects his overture in a litany of accusations connected with Marty’s apparent mistreatment of his late wife and his abuse of alcohol.
Becky, meanwhile, invites Scott to her house for coffee while her husband is away at work. One can immediately sense that Becky still pines for Scott and that adultery may be in the air. What emerges from all this is that Scott, prior to his departure for Los Angeles, was instrumental in dissolving their romantic relationship.
In Standing Up, Falling Down, hope invariably springs eternal. This idea manifests itself once more when Scott meets Marty’s daughter, Taylor (Caitlin McGee), with whom he seems compatible. Ratner wisely leaves it to the imagination whether or not they will hit it off.
Like nearly everything else in this low-key and affecting movie, one never knows what lies around the corner.