Billy Crystal might be somewhat of an acquired taste for people. While enjoying his acting is one challenge on it's own, enjoying a movie he not only stars in but also wrote and directed, is a whole different ball game. 1992 brought us "Mr Saturday Night", his self-penned tale of a hugely talented, fictitious comedian with a propensity to screw up every opportunity that came his way.
It charts the career of Buddy Young Jnr (Crystal - "Analyze This", "Forget Paris", "City Slickers", "Deconstructing Harry"), now an ageing, washed up stand-up, and looks back at his career through a series of retrospective flashbacks. He and his brother Stan (Paymer - "The Hurricane", "Payback", "The American President", "Quiz Show"), have always been entertaining people. As kids, their post-dinner comedy routine delighted the family. But when, in their teens, it came to performing at a local amateur night, their double act falls apart as Stan gets stagefright and young Buddy is left to delight the crowd alone.
Subsequently Buddy becomes the star, and Stan works tirelessly as his agent and co-writer. But the relationship is not perfect, and Buddy's abrasive, unreasonable, cruel and arrogant manner strain not just that relationship, but also that which he has with his daughter, Susan (Mara - "K-PAX", "A Civil Action", "Bound"). It also becomes a major factor in his somewhat muted success as much of his potential is never realised. Now Buddy wants just one more shot at success, but it's questionable whether or not he has learnt enough from his past to make it a reality.
Although "Mr Saturday Night" is full of laughs and one-liners, it can never be confused as a comedy. This is a pure personal drama - a study of human pursuits such as ambition and love, and traits like jealousy, bitterness and loyalty. Crystal's character is hard to like most of the time. Now a grumpy, middle-aged man who half-lives in reality about his lack of status in the world of showbusiness, he barely hangs on to the drive that made him a star in the first place.
Instantly it becomes clear that the audience will cheer for his likeable, under-appreciated and hard-working brother, who has taken years of mental abuse from Buddy. The irony is that Buddy has always taken advice from Stan. Stan repeatedly tells him through his career that "the other jacket is funnier" and makes suggestions about which gags he should and shouldn't do.
Buddy's relationships are fascinating. He undoubtedly loves his wife Elaine (Warner - "The Puppet Masters", "Doc Hollywood", "Flatliners") unconditionally, and it seems that he has treated her well in their time together. But for some reason his children never get the same treatment. We see him yelling at his young daughter Susan, and his relationship with her as an adult is non-existent (she's now a "twice divorced, middle aged drug addict" according to Buddy). His son doesn't even feature in the movie and Buddy tells us that he "lives wherever I'm not". Meanwhile, Stan retires to Florida but Buddy continues to drag him back into his desperate battle to get back in front of an audience.
It's not just his family though. Annie Wells (Hunt - TV's "Mad About You", "As Good As it Gets", "Cast Away"), a young agent who is eager to get Buddy back on track, takes a truck load of abuse from a frustrated Buddy. For some reason though, she believes in him and comes back for more.
At times it seems like Buddy might be just unlucky. After getting his own TV show, he sees the ratings slip when the show comes up against Davy Crockett on another channel. He ignores Stan's warnings on ridiculing Davy Crockett in a monologue and subsequently the show's sponsors pull the plug. Back in present day, one of his biggest fans, Hollywood director Larry Meyerson, wants to cast him in his next big movie, but Buddy flips when Walter Matthau takes his part and he is offered a much smaller one. Despite it still being a great opportunity, he abuses Meyerson and walks away. "You took every bad break you ever got and made it worse", Stan tells him.
One of the major failings of the movie is in the make-up department. Crystal was 44, Paymer 38, when this movie was made. Making them look in their early twenties is passable, but it's their elder years where things go slightly wrong. Paymers looks decent enough I suppose but that's only comparable to Crystal who looks like a man with make-up on. As for Julie Warner, the pretty brunette was 27 and her sixty-something look is fairly laughable.
But leaving this aside, the performances make up (excuse the pun) for all that. David Paymer was surprisingly, but deservedly, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. As Stan, he delivers a masterful performance, a spot-on portrayal of a timid and hesitant man working hard in the shadow of a more dominant personality.
Crystal is both harsh and hilarious but sometimes you wonder if anyone could be as cold-hearted as he is. At times you feel that his wretched treatment of those who annoy him is a little too over-the-top, perhaps exploiting his character as just that, rather than a real human being.
Warner is warm and likeable, Helen Hunt plays a convincing agent with a genuine streak, and in her small role as Susan Young, Mary Mara does a decent job.
I wouldn't say that "Mr Saturday Night" is an expert character study by any means, but if you assume its aim is to entertain and touch in just a small way, then it certainly achieves that.