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CRYSTAL SHINES IN FUNNY BUT UNEVEN `SATURDAY'

"Don't get me started" is the signature line of Buddy Young Jr., a borsht belt comic who makes his way to television stardom in the 1950s only to ultimately alienate his audience in much the same way that he alienates people in real life. His problem isn't getting started. His problem is stopping. He always goes too far.

That would also seem to illustrate the problems with "Mr. Saturday Night," which marks Billy Crystal's directing debut, for which he co-wrote the screenplay and in which he stars as Buddy, a character he originally created for television some years ago. Crystal's comic instincts are unbeatable, but he doesn't seem to recognize that a little bit of sentiment can go a long way, and there are far too many lengthy attempts at tear-jerking in this "comedy."The film covers the life and career of Buddy (with awkward flashbacks), concentrating heavily on his later years (Crystal spends most of the film in old-age makeup) as he tries to work but still can't quite get that "big break."

The main subplot focuses on Buddy's relationship with his brother Stan (David Paymer), who manages Buddy's career and generally acts as gofer and underling, often sacrificing his own interests and ambitions to do so.

Then there's Buddy's patient wife (Julie Warner) and his troubled daughter (Mary Mara), who get the short shrift because he's so focused on his career.

There are some good laughs here - some big laughs - but they simply aren't consistent enough. The film seems to be finding its center and gets on a roll and Crystal suddenly jerks everything to a halt so he an inject some serious message moment. If these scenes seemed more integrated to the story as a whole it wouldn't seem so jarring, but the characters are far too underdeveloped and Buddy himself is far too obnoxious. And when the laughter stops all of this is very noticeable.

It's appropriate that Buddy meets up with Jerry Lewis at the Friar's Club about halfway through the film. Lewis, of course, epitomizes the star comedian who feels the need to inject sloppy sentiment into his comedy films.

Crystal's fans, however, may have seen this coming. "Mr. Saturday Night" seems to echo "Memories of Me," his first foray into screenwriting (he starred as a doctor trying to reconcile with his actor-father, played by Alan King). Both films suffer from an uneasy mix of shtick and sentimentality.

"Mr. Saturday Night" also looks familiar because it so closely resembles a number of fictional Hollywood biographies about obnoxious stars who alienate everyone around them and can only come alive on the stage - think "For the Boys," "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling," "The Comic," etc.

But this one does have one major asset - Crystal himself. When he's funny, he's very funny. As a result, it seems odd that he elected to play Buddy as "old" throughout most of the film. He's clearly not very comfortable, making it hard to forget that this is Billy Crystal under makeup.

On the other hand, his supporting players, chiefly Paymer and Warner, are excellent throughout and they age very well (their makeup looks amazingly natural). (There are also some nice cameos by Helen Hunt as an agent, Ron Silver as a Steven Spielberg-type director and veteran comics Slappy White, Jackie Gayle and Carl Ballantine.)

Still, fans may want to check this out since it is obviously a subject very close to Crystal's heart.

"Mr. Saturday Night" is rated R for profanity and vulgarity.