After watching Billy Crystal’s labor of love Mr. Saturday Night, one question nags like heartburn after a pastrami platter at the Carnegie Deli: Why do so many comedians react to success by trying to prove that they’re serious?
Crystal’s last two movies, City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally…, established him as the one heir of the borscht-belt tradition to cut the mustard as a romantic leading man. Evidently, that ain’t enough. Like Woody Allen with Stardust Memories or Richard Pryor with Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, Crystal wants us to know that being funny really isn’t. So he has cowritten, produced, directed, and starred in the story of fictional comedian Buddy Young Jr. The result bears an illuminating resemblance to a nearly forgotten 1969 film called The Comic.
Now, Crystal undeniably has talent as a director: Mr. Saturday Night is sumptuous MOR filmmaking, from its scenes of behind-the-TV-cameras chaos to its detailed re-creation of a Catskills nightclub circa 1951. He also surrounds himself with fine acting talent: Helen Hunt, Julie Warner, Jerry Orbach, Ron Silver. And David Paymer, as Buddy’s brother and manager, offers a beautifully observed portrait of a man resigned to living in his younger sibling’s shadow.
It’s ironic — if pleasing — that Paymer was nominated for an Academy Award, because it’s Crystal’s performance that goes after Oscar with the full string orchestra. Even in early scenes, where he plays the comedian with the rude charisma of a man alive to his own talent, you can sniff maudlin comeuppance waiting in the wings. It’s not enough that Buddy recognizes his boorishness — he has to be forgiven, and that lends Mr. Saturday Night the warm, runny tone of a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special.
But it also has the side effect of giving both Buddy’s and Billy’s comic gifts short shrift. Time and again, we’re asked to share in the bile by laughing at Buddy’s jokes — and then to disapprove of his callousness. There’s nothing linking the two modes, either: Crystal never probes the paradox that the funniest comedians are often the meanest. He’s more interested in emotional fuzzy wuzzies, a fact that becomes evident when we see what’s missing from the finished film.
Tacked on to the back end of the Mr. Saturday Night videotape are eight outtakes, each introduced by Crystal with the patient gravity of a cinema-studies professor. Two of the dropped scenes — a nightclub riff on circumcision and an improvised discourse on the names for kosher foods — are hilarious and make you wonder: Were these cut because they make Buddy Young ”too funny” and thereby undercut the schmaltz? (Another possibility: They may have been deemed too ethnic for a movie that badly wants to be a mainstream hit.)
The Comic, on the other hand, isn’t very well produced, and its characters lean heavily on cliché. But it has one thing that Buddy Young Jr. doesn’t: teeth. Directed by Carl Reiner and starring Dick Van Dyke, it follows a fictional silent-film comedian in a style similar to that of Crystal’s movie, with parallels to Chaplin and Keaton rather than to Berle and Mason. The difference is that Reiner presents his comic completely without pity. Not only is Billy Bright a womanizing jerk, he’s never let off the hook for his behavior. The final scene shows an ancient, unloved Billy rising early to catch one of his old movies on TV, watching with dull sourness while eating a soft-boiled egg. It’s unforced and it’s harrowing, and next to it all of Mr. Saturday Night‘s shtick sticks in the craw. Both films: B-