NEW YORK — Billy Crystal has not had a substantial role in a live action feature film since the unfortunate 2012 (alleged) comedy “Parental Guidance.” If that’s not ringing a bell, consider yourself lucky. So a supporting part in an independent film by a first time writer-director might just be the thing to give a little creative spark — especially playing a super-menschy rabbi offering life lessons.
Unfortunately, the man who once looked “mahhvelous” does the best he can, but “Untogether” — a low-budget misstep from Emma Forrest — is not the vehicle to remind us how much we all love this guy.
Forrest, a successful novelist, essayist, memoirist and someone who has had a number of high profile screenplay sales but, until now, nothing produced (it happens!), gets somewhat autobiographical, casting Jemima Kirke as Andrea, a fellow Anglo-American Jewish novelist who is spinning her creative wheels.
She shares a gorgeous home in the Los Angeles hills with her sister Tara (played by Jemima’s sister Lola Kirke) and Tara’s boyfriend, an ex-rocker named Martin (Ben Mendelsohn, who happens to be Forrest’s ex-husband, please get this all down, there is going to be a quiz).
Andrea hooks up with Nick (Jamie Dornan), a very handsome English doctor from the UK who, while working in Gaza, fell in love with a Palestinian girl who was killed. He wrote a memoir about this, which is now a best seller, and his agent (British actress Alice Eve – there are no actual Americans who live in Los Angeles!) is pressing him to write a follow-up.
The London-born Forrest became a music journalist when she was a teenager, later writing three novels and then her memoir before getting into screenwriting.
“I take things that have happened to me, or I wish things that had happened to me, or things that happened to me where I wish I could change the ending,” she told JTA, when asked just how much of her own life she incorporates into her work.
Andrea and Nick engage in a lot of moodily-lit intimacy, which they both seem to intuit is doomed or meaningless or somehow bad. There’s a great deal of Jemima Kirke in rather elaborate, vintage silk underwear. Tara, on the other hand, is having a rougher time accepting the death of their father, who identified as a “cultural Jew.” When a witty and warm Billy Crystal shows up on her table (she is a masseuse) he inspires her to pop in at his congregation and maybe get more in touch with her roots.
The scenes at the synagogue are, by and large, nice, as Tara grooves to the music and seems to connect to the rabbi’s sermons about modern living. “Can Siri Google your soul?” he asks, which reads as quite heavy handed, but Crystal sells it best he can. In later conversation, she learns that he was childhood friends with the murdered Freedom Rider Mickey Schwerner. He is planning an upcoming benefit for Syrian refugees and he hopes she can attend.
These lovely synagogue bits also have some root in reality. In her memoir, Forrest — who was raised in a Jewish family — wrote that her rabbi helped her at a low point in life, was “a real moral force,” and that “certainly Billy’s character is the one in the piece who has the strongest moral clarity.”
Time marches on as Andrea and Nick mope around and get undressed to echoey music on the soundtrack. Eventually we learn that much of Nick’s memoir was a fib (which I figured out in the first scene — and I never predict these things) but Andrea tells him that his misrepresentation was just experience strained through imagination. Yay lying?
Tara becomes so infatuated with her new Jewish identity she flings herself at the rabbi, who tells her that “she’s going to make a lot of mistakes in her life, and he doesn’t want to be one of them.” He later visits her at her place of business, and it’s up to your interpretation if temptation got the better of him, or if he really just wanted to “check in” on her.
“Untogether” is a very poorly made film with no real conclusion, and does nothing to dispel the notion that sometimes wealthy people make movies just because they can, not because they should.
Crystal at first passed on the part, but a rewrite ultimately got him on board, and Forrest said she got valuable input from him, which “really enriched the script and the film.”
I suspect that large chunks were cut out between the initial shooting and now; at one point Nick ends up “in rehab” even though we never see him use drugs or abuse alcohol. (He holds a glass of whiskey at a party, I believe. And my grandfather would take a sip of Slivovitz after lighting a Hanukkah menorah — maybe he should have been in a program?)
It’s kinda fun to see Billy Crystal do a little dance on the bimah (dais) while listening to modern klezmer, but the rest of this dire picture may have you rubbing your temples.
With contributions from JTA.
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