Billy Crystal faces mid-life with a smile

June 07, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York - He'll do anything.

Just ask him.

"Do Jerry Lewis as Kevin Costner."

Billy Crystal knits up his puckish face in a nanosecond's worth of concentration, and then out it comes, in one dithering rush of comic energy, his face loose as the classic Jerry-the-idiot's, forming a moron's perfect O-ring of a mouth around that adenoidal, whining voice that drools "Dances with Wuu-uuu-uuu-llllves!"

And then he's back to being Billy.

It's a throwaway, so fast you had to be looking to catch it, brushed aside with a simple, modest "No, really," but it's convulsively, destructively hilarious. It's split-appendix hilarious, oxygen-debt funny.

That's Crystal, who doesn't so much sit in a room as play it, who is always on the thin edge of complete comedy meltdown. Like several other Titanic talents -- Robin Williams comes to mind -- his grip on his rational personality seems somewhat fragile. The comedy psychopath is lurking underneath, obedient only to the ruthless desire to destroy with laughter. He seems always liable to veer off in stunning directions.

Now he's trying to be a grown-up.

The subject is mid-life crisis, which underlies "City Slickers," his new comedy, the story of three middle-aged New York suburbanites who head west to find their boyhoods and their manhoods at once.

"I don't think of it as a crisis," he says, at 43 and the father of two, "so much as confusion. I give a speech in the film where I go before some children to tell them what to expect. And I give them nothing but depressing information. You grow up and then you die. That speech, it's the goods. The day I started shooting this movie, I took my daughter to college. That's tough, sensing that a part of your life may be over."

He makes a momentarily long face, contemplating the horrors of his 40s.

And then he undercuts it, driving the idea toward its foolish banality: "That's all I see, guys on planes reading 'Iron John' and crying. I don't want to take it too far: It is just a movie."

But what a movie. Certain to be one of the summer's big hits, the film is almost a complete Billy production; his idea, his pitch to the studio, his executive producership, his shtick, sensibility, gestalt and attitude throughout.

"After 'When Harry Met Sally . . .' I was real gun shy. I had worked hard, it was happening, I was exactly where I wanted to be . . . and I didn't want to screw it up. So I turned down everything that I was offered, convinced I'd be OK if I could only get my sensibility into a movie -- not only funny but also maybe a little poignant.

"So I'm sitting there in my living room watching TV about a scuba camp where grown-ups go to learn how to scuba dive. And suddenly I'm writing down 'City Slickers' -- three guys from New York go on a cattle drive -- tough trail boss who becomes their Yoda -- PG-13.

"And then I wrote down 'Jack Palance.' "

Less than a year later, he's sitting on this horse next to Jack Palance.

" 'Shane' was the first movie I ever saw when I was 5 years old. I'm acting with Jack Palance. It's happening. It's real. And now I'm sorry it's over. I wish we were still making it." Can you do Jack Palance, he's asked.

"I wouldn't dare," he says.

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