Coming of age is always a lot less fun when you’re already grown up, a truth astutely understood in “Standing Up, Falling Down.”
Chronicling a stand-up comedian’s disgraceful return home after failing to make waves in Hollywood, director Matt Ratner targets the humiliation, disappointment and awkwardness of failing at a youthful dream while suggesting that those feelings only keep going — and only incrementally get easier — no matter how old you get. Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal make a solid pair of intergenerational pals in this pleasantly diverting comedy-drama.
Schwartz (“Sonic the Hedgehog”) plays Scott, a comedian we first see halfheartedly warming up a crowd next to the bathroom in a coffee shop. Like too many other dreamers, he headed West hoping to stake a claim as the next great stand-up, but now he’s moving back to live with his parents in Long Island, tail tucked between his legs and absolutely determined not to accept a job working for his father Gary (Kevin Dunn). Mom Jeanie (Debra Monk) remains his biggest fan even as she suggests he pursue work at the post office, while his younger sister Megan (Grace Gummer) similarly lives at home, though she looks down on him from a management training program she recently began at a shopping-mall pretzel stand.
On his first night on the town, the would-be comedian encounters Marty (Crystal), a charming drunk who turns out to be the local dermatologist, a specialist whose help Scott actually needs. After a more formal visit to Marty’s office, the two bond over the doc’s irreverent sense of humor and begin spending time together; Marty becomes the fun, supportive father figure and sometimes instigator that Scott needs, and Scott becomes a drinking buddy and surrogate protégé for the carousing sexagenarian. But as Scott conspires to reconnect with Becky (Eloise Mumford, the “Fifty Shades” series), a girlfriend he abandoned to pursue his dreams of stardom, Marty cautions him against trying to make a relationship work that was never meant to.
Drawing on two of his own marriages, Marty offers his young friend life lessons that he sometimes still struggles with himself: The old drunk has two estranged children, Adam (Nate Corddry) and Taylor (Caitlin McGee, “Modern Love”), he can’t seem to make amends with no matter how hard he tries. But as Scott ventures tentatively back to the stage for a second shot at comedy, the young man starts to look more honestly at his strengths and shortcomings, shedding some of his bruised pride in order to venture towards a new goal that’s perhaps a bit more manageable for his skill set.
Watching an upstart comedian and a veteran play opposite one another on-screen is by itself a hoot; Crystal’s character is meant to dance on a delicate edge between charming and obnoxious, but the elder statesman draws easily from a deep well of experience cultivating chemistry on screen, which Schwartz parries with ease and dexterity.
Arriving just weeks after “Sonic the Hedgehog,” where Schwartz mildly toned down his Jean-Ralphio shtick from “Parks and Rec” to try and make the motormouthed mammal seem charming, this film finds the quick-witted performer on the back foot a bit more, and in a mode more convincingly likable. At the same time, the least effective moments are the ones that feel like “bits” — a riff on social media and “being white” while hanging out in a bar, for example — but as much because the would-be comedian still hasn’t found his performer’s voice on stage, or a way to merge it with his real one.
It feels like there was more to do with Crystal’s Marty and the forces that led him down a path of drunken loneliness after two marriages and two kids, but Ratner and screenwriter Peter Hoare (“Kevin Can Wait”) seem more interested in the journey of Scott’s that is just beginning rather than the one closer to its end. But they also design Marty as the kind of bolt of lightning who enters one’s life for only a short time, imparts some funny, profound wisdom, and disappears, and Crystal maximizes that role both for its comedic potential and for the sad-sack truth his daily performance is using to distract the world from what’s underneath.
Conversely, the movie touches on some surprisingly poignant and important truths about how we assess our choices, past and present, as we try to forge a path into the future. “Regret is the only thing that’s real,” Marty says, but what Scott discovers is that what he’s already done, pass or fail, isn’t part of that. Funny and honest in equal measures, like a good stand-up routine, “Standing Up, Falling Down” uses a light touch to teach us there’s always more to learn.