'Mr. Saturday Night' honors show biz both old and new

September 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Mr. Saturday Night" is a postcard from the bitter kingdom of Almost. Perhaps you know this zone; perhaps you even live there: it's peopled by writers who almost wrote best sellers and vice presidents who almost became presidents and reporters who almost became columnists and comics who almost became stars.

So it happened to Buddy Young Jr., who had a taste of the what it felt like back in the '50s. He was as big as Berle, as Dean and Jerry. You know Buddy. He's old show biz, a pro, one of those masters of exquisite timing, honed by working a thousand nights of bad rooms down through the years. Somehow he's George Burns, Myron Cohen, Lenny Bruce and Alan King all squashed into one scrawny yakker with a microphone and the nerve of a sniper. He always had the gift of laughter; he could make a radish laugh, and nudge a mensch into the blue zone, where the breath won't come and the pain and the joy are so intermingled that you ache to die to escape it. He was Mr. Saturday Night. Then he got thrown on opposite Davy Crockett.

Poof, it vanished. He blew up his own career. This destructive thing in him! Buddy, so angry, so unforgiving, so willing to lash out. He does his shtick on Davy Crockett on national TV, the anger in his heart poisoning the humor, and he's gone. Does he learn? Not a thing. A few years later, he finally makes the Sullivan show. His first comeback. But he follows the Beatles. Buddy, no, not with the mouth, the remarks, don't say anything about Mr. Sullivan! But you can't stop Buddy. He thinks he's making candy when he's cutting his own throat.

Buddy, of course, is the creation and alter ego of the gifted and brilliant Billy Crystal, and part of the amazement is that Crystal, who has achieved so much, can so fully occupy the skin of a man who could never quite do what he did.

In any event, the movie he's cobbled together out of the life and hard times of the indefatigable Buddy Young Jr., is equal parts Jewish schmaltz and cutting edge humor. Just when you fear it'll sell out, it goes wonderfully dark. Just when its darkness gets prickly, it lurches toward the warmth of chicken broth and potato latkes simmering in grease. If it's shapeless, it's shapeless out of obedience to a higher principle, that old Borscht Belt adage: Never cut funny. And Crystal can't bring himself to cut funny just as Buddy himself never learned to say stop to himself as he pushed toward the blue zone.

A hero he was not. A humanitarian, not this side of Miami Beach. He's loyal to his brother, except when he betrays him, which is often; he's loyal to his wife, except when he cheats, which is all the time; he's loyal to his kids, except when he uses them as comic foils, truly sacrifices them on the altar of comedy. What, now he's an Inca? The true subject of "Mr. Saturday Night" is the ruthlessness of comedy, its hunger for material, which it absorbs, ingests and regurgitates. It makes you see how genius and monstrosity so frequently dance together in the pale moonlight.

The film uses the time-worn "cavalcade" technique, fixing Buddy in his melancholy dotage, and flashing back through the years to moments large and small, triumphs and catastrophes. It could have done with a few less rubber faces, in which a cream pie's worth of latex is crinkled onto the Crystal phiz. He looks like old Little Big Man or maybe Pruneface from "Dick Tracy."

Still, "Mr. Saturday Night" is acutely conceived to honor both "old" and "new" show biz -- that is, the humor of warmth and the humor of aggression. To hear Buddy on hair and the way these young men wear it nowadays, with the mousse that makes it stand out like frozen napalm somehow exploding from their skulls? Or movie directors who appear to be so darn caring and feed you love with their eyes, really shovel it on, and then turn out to be just another brand of show business scum? Or agents who don't know a thing about what happened before 10 that morning? Buddy may be six kinds of horror in shoes himself, but he knows what he knows, which is: Never cut funny. And he never does.

'Mr. Saturday Night'

Starring Billy Crystal.

Directed by Billy Crystal.

Released by Castle Rock.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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