STATURE OF LIMITATIONS

"Billy Crystal? I crap bigger than that." So remarked the ever-gracious Jack Palance while accepting an Oscar for City Slickers, a film Crystal had written and produced. The thing is, Palance was right--but at least in City Slickers, the disparity between the two men had made some comic sense. In Crystal's latest, the romantic comedy Forget Paris, the love match isn't between the sweet Brooklyn boy and some he-man icon, but between the sweet Brooklyn boy and Debra Winger. And Winger craps quite a bit bigger than Crystal, too.

Crystal also co-wrote Forget Paris, with the somewhat overrated Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and directed it, so the choice of Winger as co-star was presumably his. Perhaps he thought that proximity to one of the best American film actresses would lend him stature, or perhaps he, like many of us, simply admires this riveting actress, and wanted to work with her. In either case, it was a self-defeating choice.

In Forget Paris, Crystal and Winger meet cute in the city of the title. He travels there to bury his estranged father in a World War II cemetery. When the body is lost, Winger, an American, is the airline official who helps him locate it.

He sticks around in Paris, they fall in love and, when she decides to chuck France and her great job for the man she loves, she returns to the U.S. and they get married. The rest of their story concerns how they learn to "forget Paris" and focus on the compromises needed to make their marriage work.

American comedy has covered the foibles of marriage pretty thoroughly, and Crystal has nothing new to offer. Some of the script's one-liners are very good, but many have a layer or two of sitcom dust on them. Still, the film is peppered with solid supporting players like Joe Mantegna, Julie Kavner, John Spencer, Cathy Moriarty, Cynthia Stevenson and Richard Masur, plus a quick visit from the peerlessly weird William Hickey. It could have worked modestly well, if the leading lady didn't blow the leading man off the screen, probably without meaning to.

There's no chemistry between Crystal and Winger. In a sense, you feel they never really meet--she's busy acting and he's busy playing to the audience. But even if there were no feel of calculation to Crystal's work--as there wasn't, for instance, in When Harry Met Sally . . .--this impassioned, gutsy warrior-woman of an actress would still stylistically outmatch a little shrimp like him.

When I refer to Crystal's "stature" or to someone crapping bigger than him, I'm not referring to his physical size (Bogart probably wasn't much taller). But it's rather embarrassingly obvious that Crystal is self-conscious about his height.

In Forget Paris, Crystal goes so far as to make his character an NBA referee. His diminutive feistiness on the court is used for its yuk value, and to give crowd-pleasing cameos to many towering players. But when Crystal tells Winger that his first ambition in the game was as a player himself, there's an unconscious whiff of a real subject--the link between sports and the sense of inadequacy in American males.

It's also symptomatic of Crystal's own sense of inadequacy. You're tempted to speculate more about Crystal's tactical motives in casting than you'd be about some other actor/writer/director. That's because ever since he hosted the Oscars, it's become increasingly plain that Crystal wants to win awards, and to be a critical as well as a popular success. He's a little bit miffed that this has, so far, been denied him. Billy Crystal wants to be a player and, both figuratively and literally, he feels too short.

How does this make him different from most of the performers in show business, especially in comedy? Simple--it shows up in his work, not just in the subtext, but overtly. Crystal reveres the brash movie and TV comedians of the '40s and '50s, like Lou Costello, Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle, and he seems to take after one of the least-appealing aspects of these performers--their intense demand that the audience love them.

Make no mistake, Crystal is a talented man. He's a very skilled, precise comic actor in many ways; he knows how to get the effects he's after. Yet when you watch him, you can never shake the sense that he's begging you to love him, to find him adorable. Though he can often be very likable, he isn't adorable.

As for Crystal's direction, there's nothing too inspired about it. He plays with a framing device similar to the one used in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, and it yields some nice results. There's a throwaway nod to Albert Lamorisse's famous short The Red Balloon, and there's a clever, funny sequence involving a mouse and a pigeon. Otherwise, the film is standard, slick studio product: Paris is watchable, but all too easy to forget.

 
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