New to Blu: Memories of Me (1988) - Reviewed

Fans of stand-up comedy and/or comic acting will recognize Alan King and years later Billy Crystal as among some of the industry’s top players with their penchant for witty one-liners, snarky rants and ability to twist straightforward stories into clever jokes all their own.  Few, however, have seen either performer in a more dramatic, emotionally revealing light and with the directorial debut of television personality/comic actor Henry Winkler, Memories of Me proceeds to do precisely that.  

The simple yet touching story of an estranged father/son relationship, New York based surgeon Abbie Polin (Billy Crystal) suffers a heart attack and upon medical leave reveals to his fiancée/doctor Lisa (JoBeth Williams) his long thought-to-be-dead father Abe (Alan King) is in fact still alive in Los Angeles.  A character actor dubbed in Hollywood as ‘King of the Extras’, Abe gets by in the film business and is loved by many yet has virtually nothing in common with his son whom he barely acknowledged in his youth.  Soon Lisa joins her fiancée’s shaky, tense reunion with his father who senses the dysfunctional dynamo may have more in common than either realizes.

Co-written by Billy Crystal and soon-to-be Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, Memories of Me is an ageless father-son tale of bonding coupled with long gestating familial strife we’ve been told numerous times over the years yet the onscreen personalities of Crystal and King somehow manage to keep things fresh and engaging.  This could have very easily been another Hallmark Entertainment slice of schmaltz, yet both actors as well as JoBeth Williams imbue the picture with genuine emotion and heart.  You can tell this is Crystal’s baby as his personality is all over the proceedings with Roth’s own tendency towards moving human dramas also present in the film’s plot and tonality.
By this point I thought I had seen everything Billy Crystal had to offer onscreen from his still-memorable comic turns in Throw Momma from the Train, The Princess Bride and among his most well-known pictures, When Harry Met Sally.  And yet this quiet yet deeply personal little number only proved just how wrong I was, it also exemplified Crystal’s uncharted dramatic chops finally used in the right part.  Amid the clever gags and sarcastic quips Crystal throws out there, he also leaves ample room for various dramatic weathers, signifying his understanding of drama’s connection to comedy.

For Crystal and King’s onscreen chemistry, you get the impression based on their experiences in showbusiness and from their own mutual upbringings that much of what’s onscreen, however cliched, seems to emanate from a real place.  King is (no pun intended) the ‘king of the one-liners’ in this and much like screenwriter Roth’s later Oscar winning efforts, King’s performance like Crystal’s is bittersweet, hiding buried anxiety and depression just under the surface of his ebullient smiles.
Yes the film (at times) does veer on old fashioned melodrama and Winkler’s cinematic vision of character actors struggling in Hollywood does tend to paint a celebratory picture of Tinseltown ala La La Land.  However, Crystal and King have such electricity onscreen together with the script under Winkler’s direction so well rendered that viewers aren’t likely to mind the film’s more saccharine qualities.  Moreover, it’s a chance to witness the two legendary comedians as they’ve rarely (if ever) allowed themselves to seen in a movie that’s equal parts charmingly funny, tearjerkingly sad and above all, tender and sweet. 

- Andrew Kotwicki