The life of a stand-up comic, one would think, is inherently dramatic: the lowly beginnings, the need for acceptance, the ability to turn personal insecurities and fears into material--all provide great fodder for a film. So why do filmmakers keep blowing it? Two recent movies, 1988's
PUNCHLINE and last year's THIS IS MY LIFE, attempted to deal with the subject but succumbed to cheap sentimentality and unfocused screenplays. Unfortunately, the same can be said for MR. SATURDAY NIGHT, comedian Billy Crystal's directorial debut.
The film is more ambitious, tracing the rise, fall and partial comeback of the fictional Buddy Young, Jr. (Crystal), who, though achieving some degree of fame, never quite reaches the top rung of the business. As adolescents, Buddy (real name Abie) and his brother Stan (David Paymer) entertain the
usual stock collection of Jewish relatives in their Brooklyn home, then grab the opportunity to audition at a local theater. When Stan chickens out at the last minute, Buddy, determined to make it outside his living room, does their act alone, and it isn't long before he's headlining in the
Catskills, and starring in his TV variety hour in the 1950s. When we see him in the present day, he's been reduced to playing old-age homes and retirement condos. Further hampering his career is the decision by his brother who's now become his agent, assistant and all-around gofer, to retire.
The film then jumps around between Buddy's successful days in the 50s and his attempts, in the present, to resurrect his career. He meets with a powerful agent who sets him up with a new, young colleague, Annie (Helen Hunt), who tries to find Buddy work: in commercials, warming up the audience at
a game show and finally a nice-sized part in famous director Larry Meyerson's (Ron Silver) film. But the crochety, disagreeable comedian usually blows his chances: he deems the commercial unworthy of his talent, and refuses to accept a lesser part in the film when his original role falls through.
Buddy not only alienates Annie and Stan, he's estranged from his daughter, Susan (Mary Mara), whom he ridicules in his act, and refers to in one scene as a "twice-divorced drug addict." But wouldn't you know, by the film's conclusion, everyone has tentatively made up, Buddy is working and he's
learned to be a little bit nicer.
Given how much is missing from MR. SATURDAY NIGHT, it's surprising how entertaining it often manages to be. Buddy's act, which is a mix of Alan King, Don Rickles, generic Catskills shtick and Crystal himself (his trademark "Don't get me started" line is the title of Crystal's 1986 HBO comedy
special), is amusing enough, although the scenes of him being "on" offstage, like an encounter with Jerry Lewis at the Friar's Club, are better. The film has a feel for period details and does, to its credit, explore one facet of Young's life in depth: his relationship with his long-suffering
brother, who never developed the drive and aggressiveness that propelled Buddy to the top--well, the middle at least. He's the film's most developed character, and Paymer's dignified, understated performance helps immeasurably.
But the main problem with the film is the problem with Buddy: both would rather go for a quick punchline than the truth. Somewhere during his TV-show period, Buddy becomes an insensitive lout, and we're never clued into as to why. He's charming enough when romancing future wife Elaine (Julie
Warner) in the Catskills, but not long after he's making fun of his daughter on national TV, offending his sponsors and getting cancelled, and blowing whatever chances he might have at a comeback through his boorishness. Indicative of the screenplay's split personality (co-written by Crystal) is a
scene where Annie begins to chastise Buddy for his behavior and his brother appears unexpectedly to tell him their mother has died. What starts out as a probing, crucial scene then cuts to a funeral, where Buddy, in his eulogy, typically resorts to cheap jokes about his mother's huge, flabby arms,
only to conclude by saying how protected he felt when they held him.
The film's treatment of Buddy's family is maddeningly sketchy: his mother is a fat, howling caricature; his wife is a cipher; and his daughter, who's in for some type of verbal abuse virtually every time she's onscreen, is given the film's most ludicrous scene, where she and Buddy try to
reconcile. (Viewers are led to believe that years of neglect and pain can be alleviated by a single visit by the aged, flower-bearing dad). Annie, the only woman in the film with a personality, is somewhat more believable (Helen Hunt does the most she can with the part), but we're a bit surprised
she'd spend so much time helping this belligerent old man, especially after their first hostile meeting.
MR. SATURDAY NIGHT works best if one watches for its jokes, and the brothers' relationship. It's fairly long on laughs, but short on insight. Maybe one day, someone will make that funny, dramatic film about the life of a comedian, but this isn't it. (Profanity, adult situations.)
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