Back in the early 2010s I was binging Parks and Recreation, and I was so anxious to see who from that brilliantly eclectic cast would burst on the big screen. Shortly after, Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza proved they were capable lead actors. I was hoping Aziz Ansari would be getting the roles Kumail Nanjiani is getting now, but I can only dream. Turns out Ansari’s breakout sidekick Ben Schwartz has finally been given his chance. And he’s pretty damn charming in this decade’s first Garden State, baby. But instead of a quirky Shins-obsessed Natalie Portman getting smitten with our lead, it’s the lovable Billy Crystal, giving his best dramatic performance he’s ever done. This is an off-beat but endlessly sweet indie.
Schwartz plays Scott, a struggling standup doing spots in small coffee houses(?), telling jokes that should have just stayed hack-y tweets. Like Braff in Garden State, he gives LA a chance until he just can’t anymore. He moves back in with his loving but distant parents(Kevin Dunn/Debra Monk) and sister(a not so subtle Mamie Gummer), and reconnects with old friends(standup Leonard Outz). Then one night he meets the friendliest(and loneliest)alcoholic dermatologist to ever grace the screen. And THAT’S Billy Crystal. And that’s when the movie starts to simmer.
The chemistry between Sonic and Mike Wysowzski immediately works. Then it started veering away from being another Garden State ripoff, but more like a low-key I Love You, Man. Instead of slapping some bass and catching RUSH shows, they watch old Mets games and get high in the park with Scott’s sister’s Boyfriend Ruiz(a charming David Castaneda) . I don’t know if you know this, but Ruiz is awesome. Also, the verbal tennis between our two leads is so good at points, I couldn’t tell what was and wasn’t improvised.
Crystal’s Marty is an empathetic lost soul in this. A character who’s made mistakes but truly wants connection to those he loves. It’s Crystal’s most heartbreaking work to date, like I said. He’s also not going for an Oscar clip, he’s just subtle enough to make the material wring true. It makes me wish Crystal was an even bigger Movie Star than he already was. Running Scared, City Slickers and Analyze This all kick ass, and if Crystal does a streak like that in the 2020’s then we are all in for a treat.
The film falters when you realize where it’s going. It’s treading a lot of familiar ground. There’s another “girl who got away” subplot that needs to die in film already. Then another tired “father and son don’t really connect” subplot that fixes itself 2 minutes before the credits roll. And Nate Corddry was very one note as the overly bitter son of Crystal. Director Matt Ratner made a positively sentimental flick, but hopefully he doesn’t think what he’s doing here is breaking new ground. But he did potentially create the new “Young Guy and Old Guy Buddy Comedy that has a tear jerking climax” sub-genre. OK next I want Zac Efron and Robert De Niro- oh nevermind. [B]
Review by Dustin Mason