Film Reviews

Billy, clubbing

Some movies are so bad that they make you look back over your recent moviegoing life with the merciless eye of an FBI agent assembling a dossier, desperately trying to figure out whether the people responsible for the picture that ruined your evening showed signs of obnoxious incompetence early on. Billy Crystal's directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night, was one of those movies. It was so nauseatingly narcissistic, so desperately unfunny, so poorly assembled, and so pathetically eager to please that when I saw Crystal do strong work in a pretty good movie, When Harry Met Sally, on cable later that week, I couldn't be charmed. I was too busy fantasizing about a new ending to Mr. Saturday Night: Buddy Young, Jr. lashed to a stake, still chomping away on that disgusting cigar as flames cleaned the smirk right off his face.

With Forget Paris, Crystal is back as a director (and star, and cowriter, and producer), and the results partly restored my faith in his instincts as both an entertainer and a human being. It's not a very good movie, but it's occasionally very funny, which automatically places it leagues above Crystal's debut. In this one, he plays a middle-aged NBA referee whose heavy schedule of traveling (he's on the road half the year) has consigned him to the life of a loner. When his father dies and our hero goes to Paris to honor his request for a burial alongside his fallen World War II buddies, the coffin is lost due to an airline mixup. Enter Debra Winger as an American emigre working at the airport; she unravels the snafu and warms Crystal's heart in the process. They fall in love, and two hours later, we've watched most of the high points of their courtship, marriage, breakups, and make-ups. Forget Paris wins points for its subject matter: what happens to lovebirds after they've decided they're going to be together forever. It's the sort of potentially fascinating road that movies usually don't bother to chart.

Unfortunately, Crystal's navigational skills are only intermittently inspired. He pulls off a few dandy scenes--particularly a cutting discourse on why Phantom of the Opera is an irritating play; a bizarre chain-reaction slapstick sequence involving a rodent-extermination effort that goes horribly awry; and just about anything involving our peevish referee hero making giant athletes' lives a living hell. (One of the basketball court scenes, which sees our hero eject some of the game's most legendary players during a heated playoff contest for astoundingly trivial infractions because he just happens to be in a sour mood over his love life, made me laugh so hard that I thought I was going to asphyxiate right there in the theater.)

But as hysterical as such moments are, they don't necessarily serve the story. They're self-enclosed setpieces, obviously designed as comic high points, that rarely fit organically among the melodramatic scenes that bracket them. When something more complicated than belly laughs is called for, Crystal resorts to his court composer, Mark Shaiman, an odious hack who operates in two modes: pastiche Benny Goodman-perky and syrupy faux-lyrical; and when that doesn't work, Crystal moves in for misty, super-emoting closeups of his actors. (Especially when the actor in question is Billy Crystal. Ah, sweet mystery of life!) And although Debra Winger has done exceptional work in other movies, she looks lost here, probably because her character is a cipher who's given little to do but smile sweetly, sob once in a while, and favor her costar with lines like, "You're really something!" and "Oh, you make me laugh!" She appears so dispirited at times that she seems to be reading her lines off a teleprompter.

The script's structure, borrowed from Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, is also a mistake. The protagonist's friends (played by a formidable assortment of character actors, including Julie Kavner, Joe Mantegna, Cynthia Stevenson, Richard Masur, and Cathy Moriarty) gather at a restaurant and recount the lovers' courtship and marriage chronologically, pausing to interject witty observations on sex, love, and matrimony. Again, the basic idea has merit, but Crystal deploys it like a somewhat more complicated cousin of a sitcom laugh track; there are so many closeups of the storytellers prefacing anecdotes with statements like, "And here's the crazy part!" and "Wait, wait, it gets better!" and "Don't tell her that! It's so sad!" that the film starts feeling like an extended slide show about people whose lives aren't nearly as colorful and interesting as they'd like to think.

It's emblematic of Crystal's self-defeating obsession with being loved; his need for unconditional acclaim on all creative fronts is so overwhelming that he won't risk letting you respond to his film on your own; he feels he has to do it for you. He's like a cinematic tour guide relentlessly calling your attention to every single point along your journey: Wasn't that scene touching? Wasn't that gag funny? Aren't you just having the time of your life? Despite occasional moments of hilarity, the end result is a spotty, timid, pandering piece of work. Forget Paris chews your food for you and swallows it, too.

Forget Paris. Tri-Star. Billy Crystal, Debra Winger. Script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel. Directed by Billy Crystal. Opens May 26.

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Matt Zoller Seitz