Despite the vulgar jokes, the vomitous schmaltz and the worst old-age makeup since For the Boys, Billy Crystal comes through in this saga of a Jewish comic’s volatile life over five decades. His debut as a director is merely adequate, but as an actor he is explosively funny. Crystal has a contagious affection for Buddy Young Jr. — the cigar-chewing combo of Milton Berle, your crazy uncle and the creature from the dysfunctional-family lagoon. Having played Buddy intermittently on HBO and Saturday Night Live since 1984, he’s decided to nail him indelibly for the movies.
As kids, Buddy and his brother Stan perform at home using their family as the butt of their jokes. When the grown Stan (the wonderful David Paymer) opts to manage his brother instead of perform, the spotlight is all Buddy’s. And he grabs it, learning the hard way how to translate Yiddishisms for a wider audience and how to take out a heckler with just the right comic dart. But at his peak as TV’s Mr. Saturday Night or at his nadir as a randy codger playing retirement centers, Buddy never loses his defensive edge even when it costs him a friend or a job.
Crystal and the movie are best when Buddy is working a stage, a camera or a Friar’s Club full of comics such as Jerry Lewis. Yet he heeds the call of soap opera, a characteristic fault of his co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers). Buddy marries Elaine (Julie Warner), the girl Stan saw first; he neglects their druggie daughter (Mary Mara) and alienates everyone from Stan to an admiring agent (Helen Hunt) and director (Ron Silver in fine form) because, yes, he never learned to open up to individuals the way he could to an audience. The bathos doesn’t defeat Crystal, but oh, what might have been if he hadn’t drowned his cathartic wit and anger in sloppy tears.