From the Archive: The Last of the Mohicans and Mr. Saturday Night

This was written for The Pointer, the student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. I tended to pair up a couple of different releases for my weekly column, trying to find some tenuous connection, as I did here. Looking back at it, I’m mortified to discover I misspelled Madeleine Stowe’s first name in what I submitted (and I’m certain it wasn’t fixed in the editing process). I also clearly appreciated Billy Crystal’s acting work in Mr. Saturday Night far more than I now remember. This review inspired one of my favorite professors to question me about it in the Communications building hallway. He didn’t agree with my assessment of Mohicans. I stand by that one.

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The beginning of the fall movie season brings out the movie studios’ high quality projects, the things they’re hoping will bring out Oscar gold in a few months. However, they don’t always really stack up among the year’s very best, like these two recent examples indicate–

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe star in this reworking of the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel that dazzles with scenery, but falls short when it comes to interesting characters. Director Michael Mann (Manhunter, TV’s Miami Vice) has done an admirable job of packing the movie with enough detail to make the audience feel as though they’ve literally been plunged into the middle of the 18th century, when this country was still a loose collection of colonies that England and France were fighting over.

Set into the middle of the confrontation raging across the American frontier is Oscar winner Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), playing a white man who was raised by Mohican Indians after he was left orphaned as an infant. His initial distaste for the English army and anything else connected with the war is lessened when he meets an officer’s daughter played by Madeleine Stowe (Unlwaful Entry). He falls is love with her, but the romance always seems restrained and underdeveloped. The moments that Mann focuses on the couple are almost invariably dull.

In direct contrast, the stretches that revolve around action sequences have far more life. With a graphic, honest depiction of the brutal hand-to-hand combat perfected by Native American warriors, every strike of a tomahawk and every slice of a blade resonates with chilling intensity.

Mann, however, can’t fill his movie with tensely thrilling sequences like this, and whenever the film comes back to the characters, it just serves as another reminder of how uninteresting they are. If Mann had directed some of the energy that was put into painstaking historical recreations into developing the characters more thoroughly, The Last of the Mohicans may have been a film that rewarded the mind as much as it rewards the eyes.

MR. SATURDAY NIGHT: On the other hand, the main attribute of Billy Crystal’s directorial debut is how well it develops the main character. Buddy Young, Jr. is a creation of Crystal’s that made his debut in a 1984 HBO special and has made occasional appearances in various specials since. A hybrid of all the great Jewish comics that made careers out of crusty punchlines and tacky one-liners, Buddy Young, Jr. has been given a complete history which Crystal explores in full. He plays the character from his most humble beginnings in the 1950s through to today as Young has become an old man who is struggling to hold on to a floundering career while playing to uninterested crowds that strictly refuse to laugh.

The film is most fascinating viewed as a character study about a man who’s not very likable. Young has spent his entire life distancing the people most important to him through his inability to deal with any situation without unleashing a shower of abrasive jokes and insults. He’s also continually harmed his own career by making bad situations worse. He has the misfortune of following the Beatles for his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but compounded the bad luck by ranting angrily at the audience.

The talented supporting cast is mostly underused but character actor David Paymer is given enough time to shine as Young’s manager-brother. Otherwise, most of the film is occupied almost entirely by Crystal’s turn as Buddy Young as other characters make only cursory appearances.

Luckily, Young is a compelling character to follow, and Crystal fills the role nicely, smoothly adapting the character from simplistic skit fodder to fully developed individual. Throughout even the most dramatic moments, which are alternately moving and maudlin, Crystal gives a subtly nuanced portrayal that is always worth watching.

Mr. Saturday Night also suffers from shaky writing, but at least the character at its core is interesting enough to compensate for underdrawn supporting characters.

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