Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal are two of my favorite actors, but I have a question. How the f@&$ did they get so old?! Hanks and Crystal play geezers, at the end of their lives. These are dissimilar characters, but similar stories, and each has a degree of sentimentality.
Each film incorporates flashback of happier times. These are journeys, at times whimsical, of fractured relationships, outliving careers and new found friendships.
A Man Called Otto (2022)
Tom Hanks is now a character actor; but then he always was. In his 60s, Hanks makes films that interest him and fewer blockbusters. Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) directed, from a screenplay by a David Magee, based on two Swedish films and the novel A Man Called Ove.
A Man Called Otto is a quirky, character film about an unhappy man. Unhappy enough to want to commit suicide, which he fails at. Repeatedly. Little by little, Otto’s story unfurls. His wife died, extinguishing a large part of the flame in his life, which is told in periodic flashbacks. He had a good life, until things changed, but he didn’t adapt. His wife’s death is something he still cannot overcome. He relies on a sense of order, hence his obsession with rules. Fastidious, to the point of obsessiveness, there’s a certain rhythm to his daily life of things that upset him. It’s his thing to correct and scold people for not complying with the rules. He’s curt with people, not wasting time with useless banter or those who violate the rules. He can’t help himself from helping fix things for those around him. He’s irritated by things that don’t work; it gains him unwanted friends (at least in the beginning).
If you’ve seen other grumpy old man films, you have a good idea how this story will go. Think Grand Torino.
Otto’s father died two months before he met his future wife. She rescued him in a way. The same thing begins to happen when a new neighbor moves in across the street. Her presence intervenes in his quiet despair, by frequently inconveniencing him at the right times. Then other’s inconvenience him: the man who collapses on the commuter train tracks; the stray cat; the trans person who’s father kicks out; neighbors who used to be close friends. These inconveniences save his life, literally.
Otto collects friends and people who care about him, even though he’s cut himself off from human relationships, they find a kindness buried underneath the insulation from the world.
Otto’s wife is seen in a series of flashbacks. He helps keep her memory alive by keeping reminders of her around his house, including a quarter than he keeps with him. The quarter is the explained later in the film: the clown incident. “My world was black and white before Sonya. She was the color.” Other people add the color to Otto’s world.
Hanks cast his son Truman in the role of a younger Otto. The physical resemblance is obvious, but he’s a kind, sweet, adaptable young man, who falls hopelessly in love with Sonya, a woman who accepts his unfinished and untethered nature, a bit like the homeless cat that Otto will take-in years later. The younger Hanks mostly works behind the camera in cinematography; here, he does a fine job as a soul in search of a home.
Forster chooses to give the film a somber, gray-blue tone, to match the emotional core of the story. There are visual splashes of warmth in an otherwise cold color palette.
I felt the film’s first few minutes were a bit obvious and forced, and Hanks falling into a familiar character. I was afraid the entire film might go this way, but I soon accepted Hanks’ character and was charmed by the supporting cast. Quirky, but real characters. Hanks as producer has filled the film with fine actors, and “moments” that are fun. He gives other characters most of the best scenes in the film. He’s a generous actor and filmmaker.
I watched the film twice and the second time it really grew on me. That’s the problem with some of Hanks’ smaller films, it takes more than one viewing for it to win me over. That’s okay for me, but a lot of viewers give up.
Here Today (2021)
Billy Crystal, in his 70s, seems as busy as ever. Based on a short story by former SNL writer Alan Zweibel, is a great vehicle for Crystal. Starring with Tiffany Haddish, Crystal has his hands with Haddish, who is keeps Crystal on his toes.
Crystal is Charlie Burnz, a writer and very active senior. He’s also struggling with the early stage of dementia. He can’t remember simple things, but memories of his late wife and kids come in flashbacks. A chance meeting with Emma (Haddish) begins an interesting friendship.
Early in the film, Charlie is on stage, being recognized for his work, but experiences an episode of forgetting the names of the other people on the stage. Charlie turns an embarrassing situation into a joke, but it’s unsettling for him. Emma is in the audience and sees through his defense, and offers to help him. His bouts with forgetting and confusion increase, and his flashbacks intensify. Most are about his wife, others involve his kids when they were young. There is obvious tension between Charlie and his son and daughter.
Here is a man who still has a lot to offer, but health and ageism are pushing him to the sideline. His mentoring approach and savvy advice about comedy are not embraced by all of his work colleagues. Emma had no idea who he was initially, but sees the real man and his struggles. Their friendship is built on respect and trust.
Crystal can’t help but occasionally inject his tendency to break into comedic riffing, which hurts his effectiveness as an actor. Charlie is a both a funny guy and terribly scared as his condition worsens. It is terrifying when he forgets where he is and goes off on a tangent. This is the first feature film Crystal has directed since 61, a wonderful film about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Crystal can be heavy-handed as a director, relying too much on forced emotion. The story didn’t need it.
Zweibel was on a talk show discussing some funny things that happened to him, while Crystal was watching. Crystal was wanting to make a film with similar elements. Zweibel actually was “bought” in a raffle, and the buyer had a medical emergency. The aging writer/mentor was based on former SNL writer Herb Sargent.
Here Today is not a bad film, but some of the character interactions feel contrived. The Emma character is underwritten, although Haddish does a very good job with it. I keep thinking, there’s a better film underneath, but what we get is generally enjoyable.
Dementia is an awful condition, it steals the life away from people. I’ve watched loved ones fade away, as if life evaporates before your eyes.
These films, made a year apart have a lot in common. Getting old is not for sissies, as Bette Davis once commented. Films about old people have a limited appeal, or there would be more of them. Jane Fonda and Lili Tomlin have found an audience for television and film projects. The Golden Girls will air for eternity. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau kept an audience into their later years. Clint Eastwood relied on being an efficient producer/director and a devoted audience. Those are the exceptions.
Crystal and Hanks are two of the best comic actors of their generation. Each has hits and misses. There two films are not the best of their work, although there are some very rewarding moments.
One thought on “Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal: grumpy old men”
Based on the pictures I’ve seen with Hanks and Crystal, I like both actors. That said, I haven’t seen any of their more recent films. Overall, it sounds like both movies are reasonably entertaining, as long as one doesn’t expect the greatest performance by each actor.
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