He’s one of our more curious movie stars. On one hand, Billy Crystal is this nice Jewish kid from Long Island who carries the wisenheimer tang of the borscht belt into the modern media age. That’s the part of him that made good in his stand-up years and on Saturday Night Live, the guy who hosts Oscar ceremonies or charity events as if he’s our national tummler.
Crystal’s decent looks and verbal charm have also allowed him to become a semiserious actor in movies like Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally … But while he has a genuine comic gift — few wits are so quicksilver yet so grounded in affable normality — drama is an arena in which Crystal’s not as secure. Still, he itches to be taken seriously, and like many comedic talents, he seems not to understand that laughs often carry more pointed truths than tears.
It’s a tough balancing act. Tom Hanks is about the only modern star to adroitly make the leap from Funnyman to full-fledged Actor. Woody Allen keeps his earnestness behind the camera, continuing to dither for yuks whenever he’s on screen. After the fiasco of 1984’s The Razor’s Edge, Bill Murray finally figured out how to get heavy while appearing to play it light in Groundhog Day. Crystal is stuck, along with Steve Martin, in the middle: They both distrust flat-out comedy as the playground of their youth, yet neither man has the mad spark of inspiration as a dramatic actor. In search of Meaning, they often come up with mawkishness.
But at least Martin keeps cranking out movies, some good (L.A. Story), some not so (A Simple Twist of Fate). Crystal has appeared to be laying low ever since his directorial debut, 1992’s deeply personal Mr. Saturday Night, met with a tepid response (he probably wasn’t expecting costar David Paymer to be the one to get the Oscar nomination). All we’ve seen since that movie is City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994, Columbia TriStar, PG-13, priced for rental), in which the actor seems to be gritting his teeth as he delivers the hackneyed comic riffs he thinks we crave.
In fact, you’ll have to go back to the original City Slickers (1991, Columbia TriStar, PG-13, $19.95) if you want to see a comically fecund Crystal. Sure, the plot’s right out of a Ritz Brothers oldie — three clueless urbanites sign up for a cattle drive — and the emotional setup, in which Mitch Robbins (Crystal) has to go ”find his smile” if he wants to break through middle-age gridlock, is a bit too moist for this viewer.
Yet once he’s on the trail with costars Daniel Stern (as hapless nerd Phil) and Bruno Kirby (as macho womanizer Ed), Crystal lets his gift for warm sarcasm take off. He’s a brilliant needler, baffling every uncomprehending Western cowpoke the trio encounters with a wall of smart, edgy guff. Mitch gets to birth a calf, bring in the herd, and learn Zen bromides from trail boss Curly (Oscar winner Jack Palance), but the reason we hang on is the same reason we watch the Academy Awards: to catch Crystal’s next clippety-clip zinger.
As its marquee-busting title telegraphs, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold has a touch of the programmer about it. Actually, everything about the movie feels secondhand, including the wheezy plot about a treasure map and buried gold. You might chalk it up to a change in directors (Ron Underwood, the talented genre stylist behind the first film, has pulled off such disparate titles as Tremors and Heart and Souls; his replacement here is Paul Weiland, best unknown for the Bill Cosby stinkeroo Leonard Part 6).
The real problem, though, is plain old sequel-itis: Because the first story completed the narrative of these characters, the only reason to make a second film is money. Not coincidentally, the plot is about the positive benefits of greed. In Slickers, Mitch and Phil and Ed had emotional subtexts, however awkwardly drawn, that made them real. With no similar base in Slickers II, the characters become cartoons. Stern’s Phil is irritatingly stupid instead of touchingly dim, and Jon Lovitz (replacing Kirby) is outside his narrow niche as Mitch’s ne’er-do-well brother, Glen; only Jack Palance, playing Curly’s twin (it’s that kind of movie), leaves any lasting impact, and that’s because the filmmakers don’t kill him off this time.
And Crystal? He does his cute little ”Helloooo” shtick, and delivers impatient wisecracks that, this time, go wide of the barn. About the only thing he doesn’t milk is Norman the Cow. But there’s panic behind that fake, jack-o’-lantern grin of his, because despite his serious ambitions, light comedy and Oscar-night rimshots may be all that audiences expect and want from him. Whatever his next move, it’ll be something to see, for Billy Crystal is not a stupid man. But based on City Slickers II, he needs to find his smile again. City Slickers II: D City Slickers: B