Billy Crystal can do funny. Harry Burns. Mitch Robbins. Ben Sobel. All are funny characters, if not exactly of the laugh out loud variety. Crystal’s shtick tends to reside in the gentler side of comedy, creating characters with which you can empathise, even love.
It’s interesting, then, to see him play what can best be described as an utter shit in Mr Saturday Night, based on the life and times of fictional comedy star Buddy Young Jr. Played across various timelines, the film takes a look back at Buddy’s life to give an insight into just how he turned into the bitter, twisted old fart we first meet in the film. It’s essentially a rise and fall tale of a celebrity and while it’s set throughout the 50s and 60s, in all honesty, it could be set in the modern era as much of the themes still ring true today. How does a celebrity cope when it all comes to an end? How would that affect both their state of mind and the relationships they hold with those surrounding them?
Crystal plays Buddy in a film he also co-wrote, produced and directed – his directorial debut – so this represented a big step in his career. Having previously made a name for himself as an affable, loveable sort in When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, it was a bold move to take on Buddy, as unpleasant a curmudgeon you’re likely to meet. He wasn’t always like that as flashbacks to his younger days show. Indeed, as a young boy he and his brother Stan (played superbly by David Paymer who had starred alongside Crystal in City Slickers and for whom this part was specifically written, earning him an Oscar nomination in the process) took endless pleasure in making the family laugh. From there we see Buddy get his first big break on stage and then it’s onwards and upwards, eventually making in on TV taking on the title Mr. Saturday Night.
As is so often the case with celebrities, the bigger they come, the harder they fall, and it’s this fall from grace the film centres upon, noting at all times that Buddy’s self-destructive behaviour is firmly to blame along the way. Reprieve comes late on in the form of casting agent Helen Hunt, but his life, so entwined with his career, is always teetering on the edge of collapse.
The film darts back and forth between the past and present to such an extent that it does become tiring at times to keep up and generally detracts from what is largely a compelling and confident piece of work. The performances are responsible for many of the film’s positives with Crystal showing a side of him not previously discovered and Paymer stealing every scene he’s in. Hunt is a slight misstep, although this is as much down to her rather thankless role as anything. As for Crystal’s directing capabilities, they are solid enough to have warranted a further outing in the so-so Forget Paris.
Crystal was a successful stand-up in his own right before making it in the movie business and admits that he draws on aspects of every stand-up he’s ever known. Fingers crossed, he won’t turn out like Buddy though, as he really has no need to.
Mr Saturday Night might not be the most Crystal-esque film in his back catalogue, but it’s certainly one of the most rewarding. If 30 minutes could have been shaved off the running time I’d have given it a fourth star. As it happens, the slightly overlong end result, plus the aggravation caused by the flipping back and forth in time, brings the film a solid average score.
There’s not much additional material, with just a small (five-minute) press junket featurette that shows a little of the make-up process to turn Crystal into an old man, plus various clips of the film itself. Insight is non-existent, plus it’s accompanied by the most annoying voice-over man I believe I’ve ever heard. Add to that a trailer and eight minutes of cast and crew interviews that offer just as little understanding of the film process, and you have a set of extras that leave you thinking a vanilla disc would have been preferable.
Mr Saturday Night is out now.