Sportsflicks: When Harry Met Salley, Or "Forget Paris" As The First NBA Romantic Comedy

There was a moment in time when Billy Crystal was a bankable star who could make whatever movie he wanted. And he once wanted to make a rom-com about a smuggish NBA ref.
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In the mid-1990’s a visionary entertainer made a memorable movie about a driven and complicated man with a job tangentially related to the sports world who struggles to successfully balance his career and his new marriage. Eighteen months after that significant film opened in theaters, Cameron Crowe would tweak its winning formula and release Jerry Maguire.

A year and a half earlier, in 1995, Billy Crystal co-wrote, directed, produced and obviously starred in Forget Paris, a weird Mary Sue of a romantic comedy in which our hero was brave enough to shine light on the plight of the NBA referee. This film was made during a weird point in time when Billy Crystal could get several passion projects onto the big screen without movie executives batting an eyelash. Such was the cache of being a five-time CableACE Award-winner, apparently, and so we got the David Paymer Oscar vehicle Mr. Saturday Night and the Gheorghe Muresan-as-Andre Roussimoff farce My Giant. Eventually Crystal’s star faded *cough* Father’s Day *cough*, and perhaps the best of these sort of projects, *61, found a home on HBO, which is where most of them probably belonged in the first place.

Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who wrote City Slickers but also wrote City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold, obviously knew how to write Billy Crystal’s parts; no other co-writers could have helped Crystal bring Forget Paris to the screen. The Ganz/Mandel superpower, if you want to call it that instead of Grating Literary Tic, was the ability to make everyone else in Billy Crystal’s movies sound suspiciously like Billy Crystal. In rom-com mode, this basically involves Billy Crystal dating and falling in love with himself, as portrayed by some actress or other. In this case, he does that while a bunch of NBA players stand around.

Los Angeles Clippers superfan Billy Crystal is Mickey Gordon, debonair NBA ref, and international playboy. When his asshole father dies, Mickey decides to bury him in France, nominally to honor his dad’s contribution to D-Day but pretty much to get him as far the fuck away as possible. It also works to get the plot rolling, as his father’s casket floated up towards Heaven but got lost along the way. Enter Ellen Andrews, an employee of Totally Not Air France who helps bury Mickey’s father once and for all, and then just hangs around with Mickey during an extended stay in the titular city we’re all supposed to forget.

There is a lot of wish fulfillment in Forget Paris, from Billy Crystal falling in love with Debra freaking Winger—who plays Ellen, and quite charmingly—while having Laker Girls, Knicks City Dancers, Spurs Silver Dancers, and whatever they called the Supersonics’ cheerleaders as road beef. There is an early scene where, and I am not making this up, Rush Limbaugh says we need someone like Crystal’s character in the White House after Mickey Gordon makes a correct game-ending call against Charles Barkley.

Crystal is the pastrami in this Responsibility Politics Sandwich. Having Billy Crystal do Billy Crystal Things all the time is inherently antithetical to the platonic ideal of being a referee, which is to be as unmemorable as possible. It is also quite self-indulgent, which is especially offensive to me, the person writing a piece for a sports website about a 20-year-old romantic comedy that has less than ten minutes of actual sports footage in it.

The NBA in which Mickey works is a strange and anachronistic place—I’d place it circa 1988, although it’s set in the ‘90s and Spud Webb appears in period-appropriate mid-90’s Sacramento Kings gear. It could just be some alternate universe where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays until he’s 46, and so do Isiah Thomas and Kurt Rambis, and also the Detroit Pistons and four other teams also play in the Los Angeles Sports Arena for some reason and Magic Johnson was never born. The Krambis does some spectacularly bad acting, before Kareem saves the scene with a performance that’s Olivier-grade by comparison. And then Isiah Thomas, in perhaps the only moment in my life that I’ve actually liked him, brandishes a magnificent shit-eating grin as Mickey gives half the Western Hemisphere a technical foul. This, my friends, is how Kobe’s farewell tour should proceed.

In between these short-guy-talks-to-tall-guy scenes, Mickey and Ellen marry off screen and bicker on screen. The whole second act is a tug of war between Billy Crystal’s happiness and Debra Winger’s happiness, with Mickey putting a hiatus to his career to sell Subarus to Dan Castellaneta (not a euphemism for anything) and Ellen leaving her great job at Totally Definitely Absolutely Positively Not Air France for a much worse position at Kinda Sorta American Airlines. Ellen is beset by various species of city vermin: first a mouse, then Clint Howard, and finally a pigeon gets stuck to her head somehow.

Meanwhile, Mickey has to deal with his father-in-law moving in; the delightful William Hickey doesn’t have much to do besides repeating an obscure Toyota jingle from the late 1970's in a manner befitting a torch singer, but he’s always great at playing a crazy old man. This scene grew on me, and I now think it’s the best part of the movie by far. Yes, even better than Spud Webb bantering with Billy Crystal.

And that’s pretty much how the movie ends. Sure, there’s a scene where Billy Crystal gets a police escort while delivering sperm to a fertility clinic, and after one absolute, total, final, once-and-for-all break up, Mickey and Ellen reunite during the National Anthem at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena Pretending To Be Madison Square Garden. That said, once the basketball action disappears and Forget Paris becomes a straight up romantic comedy, all you get is an endless cycle of breakups, make-ups, and random strangers telling Joe Mantegna’s fiancee what a special thing Mickey and Ellen have going. There is a part of me that wonders whether Cynthia Stevenson is still at that restaurant, with Mantenga, Richard Masur, Julie Kavner, Cathy Moriarty, and the late John Spencer all popping in once in awhile, updating her on how Mickey and Ellen are doing.

It’s painfully obvious that Joe Mantegna is on hand to cover for the late Bruno Kirby, with whom Crystal had a vague but definite falling out between City Slickers and City Slickers II. Debra Winger took a six-year hiatus after making Forget Paris, although the resulting documentary, Searching For Debra Winger, exonerates this movie from any blame. The cast is a stacked deck of character actors, NBA All-Stars, notable secondary performers on Seinfeld, and the voices of both Homer and Marge Simpson. They all do their best to play by Billy Crystal’s rules; after all he is the referee.

As with Joey Crawford and others in that line of work, the power appears to have gone to Crystal’s head somewhat. Many of Forget Paris’ flaws come about from Billy Crystal trying to please himself too much; there is no other explanation for Ellen urging Mickey to sing. The entire premise of this movie, which again is about Billy Crystal’s closest friends telling each other how great a couple Billy Crystal and Female Version Of Billy Crystal are, is hilariously masturbatory in nature, and Crystal’s (very long) sperm sample scene isn’t even metaphorically masturbatory. Forget Paris is enjoyable enough, but a little more Kareem and a lot less Crystal might have helped.

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