Billy Crystal marked his feature directorial debut in 1992 with Mr. Saturday Night, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.
Buddy Young Jr. (Billy Crystal) dates back to a HBO comedy special in 1984. Crystal knew there was something special there and brought the character to Saturday Night Live after joining the cast. Even dating back to his earlier years, the character was something of an insult comic. You can place Buddy Young Jr. into any situation and you don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth. Crystal not only directs but produces, stars, and co-wrote the script for the film. You really feel like you’re watching a veteran Catskills comedian. As a storyteller, Crystal draws on his own youth–his grandmother is the inspiration behind Buddy’s mother. Meanwhile, young Buddy is almost definitely a stand-in for Billy in his youth.
In adding in some family drama into the mix, it makes Buddy Young Jr. something that’s more than a one-note character. When he’s older, Buddy is not only estranged from his brother, Stan (David Paymer), but his daughter, Susan (Mary Mara), too. To be fair, you can’t help but hurt for Stan when Elaine (Julie Warner) wants to meet Buddy. As his star begins to fade–not helped by Buddy being booked on The Ed Sullivan Show during the same show as The Beatles–Buddy starts driving away everybody. It’s in his nature but at the same time, it puts viewers in the awkward situation of rooting for Buddy or not. It’s hard rooting for a character when you know he’s driving people away. Even as an older comedian, there’s still some room for improvement.
Elaine and Saul Bass designed the opening titles sequence, which is enough to make anyone hungry. One thing for sure: you know you’re going to be watching a Jewish movie. More movies should have a sequence that makes its audience hungry. I kid, I kid–don’t get me started! Anyway, Albert Brenner’s production design is top-notch as he recreates an earlier period, including Billy’s grandmother’s house.
I feel that Mr. Saturday Night holds up as one of those life-spanning biopics. Honestly, biopics work better when they focus on a narrow span in time rather than spanning one’s life. Anyway, it really works as a story of both Buddy and Stan from their youth and going into their own age. Of course, this means having actors appear in old-age makeup. In any event, it is not Crystal who delivers the best performance in the film but David Paymer. As far as both real and fictional biopics go, pairing this with Chaplin would make for a rather fascinating double-feature–both films deal with comedians and their brothers.
Mr. Saturday Night is a solid directorial debut for Billy Crystal and feels like the most personal film of his career.
DIRECTOR: Billy Crystal
SCREENWRITERS: Billy Crystal and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
CAST: Billy Crystal, David Paymer, Julie Warner, Helen Hunt, Mary Mara, Jerry Orbach, and Ron Silver
Columbia released Mr. Saturday Night in theaters on September 23, 1992. Grade: 3.5/5
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