From the DVR: Mr. Saturday Night (1992)


During his stint as a “Not Ready for Prime Time Player” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live from 1984 to 1985, comedian Billy Crystal regularly convulsed audiences with his impressions of Muhammed Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Herve Villechaize.  (How’s that for “comedy comes in threes?”)  Crystal also created original characters, like Lew Goldman (the elderly Jew constantly coughing up phlegm) and his most famous, talk-show host Fernando (“You look mahvelous!”).  One of his creations, Las Vegas comic Buddy Young, Jr., also made a handful of appearances (the comedian originally introduced Buddy on an HBO special in 1984) and proved to be popular enough to inspire a feature film, Mr. Saturday Night (1992).  With the box office success of comedies like When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and City Slickers (1991), Billy rose to the ranks of auteur and was allowed to direct Night (in addition to co-scripting and starring).

Borscht Belt jokester Buddy Young, Jr. once boasted of standing room only audiences in Vegas casinos and starring in his own CBS-TV series during the mid-1950s…but over the years, he’s gradually been reduced to playing nursing homes.  His brother Stan (David Paymer), his manager and agent, has to break the bad news and tell him that a cruise on which Buddy was booked to entertain has backed out of the deal, leaving the comedian quite upset.  (“That was my winter!”)  Stan isn’t finished being the harbinger of misfortune, however; he’s also quitting as his brother’s handler and retiring to Florida.  The two siblings have a nasty falling out.

Returning home to his devoted wife Elaine (Julie Warner), Buddy flashes back-and-forth between modern-day events and his past, and we witness how he and his brother got their start entertaining relatives after get-togethers.  Later, Buddy wins a talent contest (Stan pulls out at the last second) and is on his way to stand-up stardom.  The comedian resigns himself to the truth that he’ll have to soldier on in the business of yuks without Stan, and gets an assist from Annie Wells (Helen Hunt), an agent who’s been foisted on him by her boss Phil Gussman (Jerry Orbach), who was helped by Stan when he started out in the beginning as an agent.  It won’t be easy finding work for the aged funster; Buddy Young, Jr. is incapable of relating to the people in his life except through a steady stream of wisecracks (he’s estranged from his daughter Susan [Mary Mara]) and every big break that’s come his way has been sabotaged because he’s his own worst enemy.

Billy Crystal as Buddy Young, Jr. in Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

In a USA Today article published in 1992Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary chose Enchanted April as his personal pick for Best Picture, and listed four other films as honorable mentions: Howards EndA Midnight ClearNight and the City, and the movie being reviewed right now.  (How Night and the City got on that list I’ll never know—maybe that’s why Peary sticks to writing about sports these days.)  He also listed star Billy Crystal as one of his runners-up for Best Actor (Armand Assante would have received Danny’s AO trophy for The Mambo Kings), so I was most curious to check out Mr. Saturday Night to see why it had garnered such high praise.  It’s the same old story—so many movies, so little time…but when I noticed that it was airing on HDNet Movies I decided to stalk and trap it with the DVR.  (Now here’s a message from Mutual of Omaha.)

I’m in general agreement with Mr. P on a lot of movies, but I think in the case of Mr. Saturday Night he overpraised this one.  Not that it’s a terrible film, but it’s one of those features where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  There are some wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the film, and the production was clearly a labor of love for Crystal; he’s a huge fan of the comedy greats, and one of his celebrated SNL impressions was that of Big Apple TV host Joe Franklin, who chatted with show business legends for a living.  In one scene in Night, Buddy is hanging out at the Friar’s Club with three of his “peers”—Slappy White, Jackie Gayle, and Carl Ballantine—while he waits on his appointment with Gussman.  (This is where he learns his old friend has given him the brush-off, and assigned Annie to handle his bookings.)  Buddy even encounters Jerry Lewis (as himself), and the two of them good-naturedly exchange insults (“Still combing your hair with the Exxon Valdez, I see,” Young cracks to Jer).  The show biz atmosphere is true-to-life, not to mention the backstage chaos on Buddy’s short-lived TV venture (which harkens back to a better movie, 1982’s My Favorite Year).

Teenage Buddy (Jason Marsden) and Stan (Michael Weiner)

The problem with Mr. Saturday Night is the main character.  He’s an unlikeable schmuck.  His schmuckiness isn’t so much a handicap (it’s a most realistic depiction of a lot of comedians)—it’s that Crystal the filmmaker doesn’t have the courage of his convictions to make Buddy Young, Jr. a complete shit for the entirety of the film.  As the movie heads toward its conclusion, Billy and co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel feel the need to tack on a “happy ending” by softening the Buddy character (he realizes he’s been an asshole all these years!) and going out on some schmaltz…and as Roger Ebert correctly pointed out in his review of the film, “anyone who has been a[n] SOB until the age of 70 is unlikely to reform.”  (It’s hinted that Buddy is a bit of a philanderer, but you never see him engaged in any affairs—it’s like introducing a gun in the first act of a play and then not using it in the third.)  I made a small allowance in the sequence where Buddy tries to reconcile with daughter Susan (because I am a sucker for sweet scenes), but it only made me wish that they had included more detail on why the two of them are estranged.  Also, too:  I don’t normally like to nitpick on things like this, but…oy, that old-age makeup.  Crystal looked like he was the victim of a Silly Putty landslide.

I found the secondary characters in Mr. Saturday Night much more interesting; David Paymer is sensational as Stan (even if he has the same makeup problem), a man who’s sacrificed so much for his brother (he’s always kicked himself that he never got the courage to pursue the woman who eventually weds Buddy) and would probably feel better if he gave Buddy a solid punch in the jaw.  (Paymer got an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his turn, and deservedly so.)  Helen Hunt also exudes a lot of charm as Annie, who takes the time to look up who Harry Ritz, Jack Carter, and Phil Silvers were to demonstrate to her reluctant client (Buddy) she’s serious about getting him gigs.  Julie Warner is luminous in a role (no putty for that girl) that was originally going to be played by Kyra Sedgwick before Kyra became great with child.

David Paymer and Billy Crystal

I’m not sorry I sat down with Mr. Saturday Night; I knew I would gravitate to the plot (I revere classic comedy) and unlike some of the folks who reviewed the movie on its initial release, I thought some of Buddy’s “material” was pretty funny (I truly enjoy that rimshot! humor).  But I can tell you the precise point where the movie went south for me; there’s a brief scene where Paymer, Warner, and Crystal’s characters are watching Your Show of Shows—the legendary “This is Your Life” sketch—and Crystal’s Buddy sits stone-faced during the presentation.  (How could you not laugh at “Uncle Goopy”?  Okay, maybe my father wouldn’t.)  Maybe this either demonstrates the hollowness of Young’s comedy (maybe he doesn’t even have a sense of humor) or it’s jealousy on his part…but I just shook my head in disbelief after watching that.  (The irony is that Billy Crystal himself has noted many times that it was Sid Caesar himself who inspired him to become a comedian.)

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