50 years in the life of an American comedian from '40s vaudeville to playing the retirement homes.
For his directorial debut Billy Crystal takes on a subject about which he knows just about everything - stand-up comedy.
The Mr. Saturday Night of the title is the fictitious Buddy Young Jnr., whose rollercoaster career and colossal failure as a human being are explored over the course of more than 50 years, from family parlour cut-up to geriatric wiseguy. In portraying Buddy, Crystal reinvents himself as a deeply unpleasant and completely self-absorbed applause junkie, a character he originated ten years ago, essayed on TV's Saturday Night Live and has regularly revisited in the decade since.
As such, he knows Buddy - a credible composite of a generation of American comic monsters - as well as he knows himself. Crystal is also able to invest Buddy with his own considerable career's worth of successful shtick, airing his best and funniest gags like the Dances With Jews routine which opens the movie, but the trouble is that Buddy, while undeniably a laugh a minute, is such an ungenerous, mean-spirited man to spend over 50 years with.
Between wowing them in 40s burlesque and making them wet their pants in 90s retirement homes in Florida, Buddy neglects and alienates his "loved" ones, is just beastly to his long-suffering brother (beautifully played by Paymer) and cruelly ridicules everyone in sight. In his zeal to prove his worth as an Actor, Crystal spends too much of the film in old age make-up, encased so heavily in latex as to recall his cameo as the out-of-work wizard in The Princess Bride.
Clumsily flashing back and forth 'twixt juvenilia and near-senility also strikes against the viewer warming to, a life in which belated reconciliations and reparations feature with embarrassing predictability. For all its flaws, however, the painful mirth, the parody (Buddy following The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show), and some useful casting assets (Ron Silver, Jerry Lewis as himself) nudge it just across the Laugh Till You Cry borderline.
Crystal's debut has its moments but the clumsy structure of the story prevents it from being a real heart wrencher.