By People Staff
October 05, 1992 12:00 PM

Billy Crystal, David Paymer, Julie Warner, Helen Hunt, Mary Mara

While comic Crystal’s first film as a director is not at all funny, it is an original, sagacious, poignant, satisfying drama, well acted and unapologetically sentimental. It is based on the Borscht Belt comedian character Crystal used to do in his stand-up act, Buddy Young Jr. A vague mix of Buddy Hackett, Jack Carter, Alan King and Jerry Lewis, Young is self-absorbed but never self-aware—a reflexively nasty and superficial ingrate.

Crystal makes this painfully unsympathetic character at least tolerable, but he and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (they collaborated on City Slickers, among other things) succeed too well in some ways: They made Young an epitome of the 1950s generation of stand-up TV comics—sexist, racist, crass, topical and prone to cheap insults. He is willing to joke even about the recent death of his beloved mother. And when someone, describing the crowd at a club, tells Young, “It’s jammed up out there,” his riposte is, “So is my ass.” That’s the level of wit involved. An exception is a bit in which Crystal talks about how people in his family were given names like the characters in Dances with Wolves: “We had Spits When He Talks, Eats With His Hands, and Never Buys Retail.”

The movie’s main interest, though, lies in the tortured relationship between Crystal and Paymer (City Slickers), who thoughtfully plays Crystal’s brother, agent and de facto custodian. They bicker, plan and console each other affectingly as they face their youth in Brooklyn and the cynicism of show business. Paymer’s retirement leads to Hunt (who stars in TV’s new Mad for You) taking over as Crystal’s agent. This casting is strange, since Hunt, strong actress though she is, looks confusingly like Mara (The Hard Way), who ingratiatingly plays Crystal’s neglected daughter.

Warner (Doc Hollywood), as Crystal’s wife, is sweet and sympathetic as a young woman but unconvincing as a middle-aged woman. Crystal, who for most of the movie is so badly made up that he looks as if he dipped his face in a bowl of wet pancake mix and just let it dry, reflects the anguish of an aging man—and has-been star—with subtlety and compassion. Ron Silver (Reversal of Fortune) convincingly plays a film director who double-crosses the comeback-minded Crystal. Jerry Lewis shows up for Crystal to chide him about his greasy hair. Jerry Orbach overdoes the duplicitous agent who is Hunt’s boss.

The film is mostly a triumph, especially for Crystal (as an actor) and Paymer. You will never dismiss the efforts of a fading old comedian quite so easily again. (PG-13)