“Memories of Me” (opening today in San Diego theaters) is a seriously intended comedy by people with unswerving faith in cliches. Life is just like television. Hollywood hasn’t changed since the 1940s--stroll onto a movie lot and you’ll see jostling crowds of extras, dressed like the Wicked Witch or astronauts or cave men or lobsters.
Since Henry Winkler directed and Billy Crystal co-wrote, co-produced and co-stars in this twinkly dreadfulness, and they of all people must know better, this seems disingenuous.
The subject is the restitching of the bonds between an estranged father and son. It’s not an unimportant or an unpromising theme, but it has had its innings over the years, from “Death of a Salesman” onward: “Shane,” “Hud,” “I Never Sang for My Father,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Great Santini,” “Harry and Son,” “Nothing in Common” “Da” and so on and on and on. By now, prudence would suggest that, unless you have something earthshaking to say or a particularly poignant way of saying it, perhaps it should go unsaid.
But in “Memories of Me,” nothing goes unsaid; its banalities are triumphant, its maudlin flourishes build to maudlin crescendos. It’s too bad, because Crystal is good at his character’s wary self-protectiveness and Alan King, when carefully directed, the way he was in “Just Tell Me What You Want,” can be shrewd and juicy. Here, he’s only juicy. Between this screenplay (co-written by Eric Roth) and Winkler’s first-feature direction, mortification is the order of the day.
The movie opens with the mild heart attack of Manhattan cardiac surgeon Abbie Polin (Crystal). His sweetheart, pediatrician Lisa McConnell (JoBeth Williams), whose only quarrel with him is that he’s emotionally withdrawn, insists he go to California to patch things up with the blustery insensitive father he can’t stand. (Although Williams and Crystal work at what seems to be a large public hospital, both of them manage more time off than Johnny Carson. You begin to brood about their patients.)
Out West, Abe Polin (King) reigns as “king of the extras.” It allows a great many scenes with “his people,” the littul peeple of Hollywood who, of course, include a dwarf, a cowboy, a tap dancer, a string bean. Abe is beloved by them, but he can no more listen to what his son needs to say to him than he could 30-some years ago, when he and his wife divorced.
Bickering. Tension. Williams, whose Mileage Plus is soaring, runs back and forth between the two like a whippet, unable to bring them together. Then, just as Crystal is about to go back to New York, estrangement intact, a dreaded Movie Disease strikes.
Is it operable? Have you been asleep? Of course not. It’s in the Strait of Hormuz or the Islets of Langerhans, or where ever. In any case, it’s enough to bring on a reconciliation. Abe takes them both to Olvera Street. Funny-mustache photo time. He asks the Olvera Street mariachi band to play the Hava Nagila. And they don’t know it. The Red Army Chorus knows the Hava Nagila. The Vienna Boys Choir knows the Hava Nagila. This most practiced of all tourist bands in greater Los Angeles doesn’t know it. They think he’s said Hava Tequila.
It would be nice to say that things don’t get much worse than this, but they do. Much, much worse. Trust me. There is a death scene involving this terminally ill patient which turns out to be only a little joke. Everyone laughs a lot at that, the way families do in the closing seconds of television sitcoms. And there’s an inside-Hollywood sequence about a cynical casting agent who’s all heart.
To reveal any more would be telling, but . . . the final moments involve all the littul peeple of this cockamamie business. Actually, no extra’s guild members were used in the making of “Memories of Me.” Talk about lucky.
‘MEMORIES OF ME’
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. presentation of an Odyssey Entertainment Ltd. production of a film by Henry Winkler. Executive Producers Gabe Sumner, J. David Marks. Producers Alan King, Billy Crystal and Michael Hertzberg. Director Winkler. Screenplay Eric Roth and Crystal. Camera Andrew Dintenfass. Production design William J. Cassidy. Art director Russell Smith, set decorator Sam Gross. Editor Peter E. Berger. With Billy Crystal, Alan King, JoBeth Williams, Janet Carroll. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).