Mr. Saturday Night

Billy Crystal’s labor of love (and directorial debut) died at the box office, possibly because audiences expected it to be funny. It’s not wholly successful, but one can respect Crystal’s intentions. Crystal plays Buddy Young Jr., a character he developed on Saturday Night Live and a few HBO specials. Buddy is your typical Borscht-belt Jewish comedian, in the mold of Alan King or Milton Berle. Like Crystal, Buddy gets laughs by turning his Jewish upbringing — the Yiddish accents, the phlegm-hawking elders — into absurdist shtick. Unlike Crystal, Buddy has an attack-dog persona (he gets his first onstage laugh by ridiculing a fat heckler) and is great at alienating everyone in his life, including his brother Stan (David Paymer in a striking, Oscar-nominated turn), who buries his own life and becomes Buddy’s thankless, long-suffering lackey.

Most of Mr. Saturday Night (the title evokes Berle’s nickname Mr. Television) is told in the present, with the 73-year-old Buddy shuffling around and bouncing the same tired jokes off people who chuckle politely. (The old-age makeup is about fifty percent convincing.) Buddy is the Jake La Motta of stand-up, and Crystal explicitly patterns the film after Raging Bull. (Hey, steal from the best.) He has also, unfortunately, cast himself against type. Crystal just doesn’t have it in him to be a bastard; he always seems to be just doing Buddy Young Jr. Still, there are more than a few moments that achieve the pathos Crystal wants. A little more of the brash young Buddy would’ve helped; a lot more of Julie Warner as Buddy’s loving wife Elaine would’ve been great.

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