It's lonely at the middle.
During Billy Crystal's early career of stand-up and Saturday Night Live, he impersonated and created a banquet hall full of unique and memorable characters, such as Sammy Davis, Fernando Lamas, Joe Franklin, and Buddy Young Junior. Buddy was a bitter, past-his-prime, B-grade comedian who had a taste of the big time but consistently managed to screw up everything good in his life. In his directorial debut, Billy and his writing partners, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, took Buddy from a good bit character and turned him into a living, breathing, flawed legend of comedy, in turn creating a film of great emotional depth and humanity.
Facts of the Case
Brothers Abie and Stan Yankelman grew up as the main stage entertainment for every holiday and family gathering. However, when they take their act and go for broke at a local amateur night, Stan gets cold feet and Abie goes it alone, creating a new name and personae—Buddy Young Jr. From that night on, it's a meteoric rise to stardom, culminating in a prime-time network television show and a spot in the living rooms and funny bones of American families every Saturday night. But as we all know, the bigger they are, the harder they fall—and Buddy is no exception. Unfortunately, when you fall this hard, you wind up taking a lot of innocent people with you.
Buddy (Billy Crystal, City Slickers) is one of those comics people find funny, as long as his humor is directed at someone other than you. Picture a combination of Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, and Denis Leary. His shtick consisted of demeaning stories featuring members of his family, harsh jabs at famous people and current events, and biting one-liners directed at audience members. At the beginning, it was all in fun and good taste. However, once the stakes were raised and Buddy got a taste of stardom, his humor became unconsciously cruel. His oblivious and uncaring nature took its toll on his career and everyone around him, ultimately leaving Buddy a broken, bitter, has been.
We enter the story, appropriately enough, at the middle. Buddy is playing gigs at hospitals, nursing homes, and any possible place his brother and manager, Stan (David Paymer, Payback), could book him. When a winter cruise gig falls through, Buddy lashes out and blames his fall from grace squarely on the shoulders of Stan, claiming every mistake and misstep he ever made is the direct result of his brother's inept management. This moment clearly defines everything we need to know about these two men. The years of jealousy, resentment, and heartbreak erupt into a moment of clarity for both of them. Stan has had enough. All his life has been spent catering to his brother—sacrificing so much of himself under the misperception of doing the right thing. We cannot live our lives for other people, no matter how noble it may seem. Awakening from a 50-year nightmare, Stan is determined to claim these remaining years for himself. With his wife gone, he is leaving the business and moving to Florida—to be with his children and grandchildren—to express himself through sketching and painting—and finally begin living his life. Buddy takes the opposite approach, going deeper into denial, determined to revitalize his career and reclaim his perceived birthright.
As we flashback to the beginning, Crystal paints a beautiful portrait of 1930s Brooklyn and life in this large immigrant Jewish family. We watch his rise to fame through New York nightclubs and summers in the Catskills, where he meets his future wife, Elaine (Julie Warner, Tommy Boy). The touching, heartfelt relationship the two share carries them through life on the road, raising two children, and dealing with the complications fame can bring. But all the warmth and sentiment we feel on his rise to celebrity is echoed back in heartbreak and despair throughout the rest of the film. For you see, at the height of his career, Buddy was given a spot on the Ed Sullivan show…following the debut of The Beatles. In a matter of moments, everything Buddy, Stan, and Elaine have worked so hard and sacrificed so much for comes crashing down like a house of cards.
Flash-forward to the present day. A desperate Buddy, lost without his brother's guiding hand, calls on an old friend and top agent (Jerry Orbach, Law and Order) for help. Once again, burnt bridges come back to haunt him. Buddy is given the brush off and assigned to Annie, a young female agent (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets) who knows nothing of who or what he once was. Crystal gives such depth to this character we feel the bitterness in each and every putdown Buddy uses on the ambitious young woman—practically reducing her to tears, until he realizes this is his only chance at ever working again. A similar relationship is expressed between Buddy and daughter Susan (Mary Mara, K-PAX), a recovering drug addict. The damage one man can do to so many people is staggering. Whereas Susan has written off her father, Annie refuses to give up, booking him on gigs for adult diapers commercials and anything else she can get her hands on. All her hard works pays off in spades when she meets with a hot young filmmaker (Ron Silver, Ali) who is a Buddy Young Jr. fanatic and has written a role perfect for the aged comedian. Stan, back in town for a family funeral, is begged by Buddy to stay and help prepare him for this audition. The excitement of the moment overshadows everything that came before and the two have an opportunity to rebond and talk out their differences. But as is often the case, if something appears to be to good to be true, it usually is. However, a valuable lesson is learned and, for the first time, Buddy allows others to influence positive change in his life.
Much like his friend Robin Williams has done in recent years, Crystal cements himself as a true actor, rising above the label of a comedian who makes funny movies. His patented humor is balanced out by an impressive range and depth of emotion, making Buddy a real person. However, as impressive as Crystal is, the movie is stolen by David Paymer. His performance as Stan earned him an Oscar nomination and rightly so. The scene following Buddy's film audition alone showcases just what a talent Paymer is. There is no doubt in your mind these two men are brothers. It's surprising and disappointing we don't see more of his work. Julie Warner and Helen Hunt also provide fine performances, as does Mary Mara in her role as Buddy's daughter Susan. Their final scene together is likely to bring a tear to your eye. Keep an eye out for cameo appearances by legendary comedians Jerry Lewis (Cinderfella), Slappy White (Sanford and Son), and Carl Ballantine (McHale's Navy).
As for the physical evidence, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is exquisite. The cinematography, from the opening title sequence, to Buddy and Elaine's gazebo encounter in the Catskills, to their candlelit anniversary celebration in the bathroom, is captured in great warmth and an explosion of color. The blacks are solid and there is little evidence of any dirt or grain. The film is also available in 1.33:1 full frame, but the widescreen is much more impressive. The 2.0 Dolby audio is right on the mark and more than suitable for showcasing Crystal's rapid fire delivery and the impressively touching score of composer Marc Shaiman (City Slickers). The extras included on this disc are equally impressive. While the commentary by Crystal and Paymer is sparse and disappointing, the three featurettes—This is Buddy Young Jr., See What We Did?, and Makeup!—provide tremendous insight into the process Crystal and company went through in creating the film. My suggestion is to skip the commentary and watch the features instead. In addition, deleted scenes with introductions by Crystal, a gag reel, and the original theatrical trailer round out a very impressive disc.
An impressive directorial debut by Billy Crystal and an Oscar worthy performance by David Paymer make this one film everyone can enjoy. At $14.95, Mr. Saturday Night secures a definite buy recommendation for fans of Crystal or the 1950s comedy genre. A must rent for all film lovers.
Mr. Saturday Night is hereby acquitted of any criminal charges and held up as a film we can all learn something from. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Billy Crystal and David Paymer
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