For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Next up is Forget Paris, the 1995 romantic comedy starring Billy Crystal, Debra Winger, Joe Mantegna, a ton of NBA stars from the mid-1990s (e.g., Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, and Tim Hardaway), and the memory of When Harry Met Sally…
Back in 1995, the multiplex experience had variety during the summer. You could catch a date movie for grown-ups, a genre that is on life support if it hasn’t already been tagged in the morgue. (Speaking of which, happy belated 20th anniversary Out of Sight.) The summer blockbuster season now resembles Steph Curry’s range—the new Avengers movie opened in April, for crying out loud—and the movies available are visual feasts that will play in the international market and make more money. Cable and Netflix are for nuance—or, if you’re a diehard, head to the art house. But studios believe moviegoers want to spend money on an experience that gets diluted in their living room or on their mobile device. They haven’t been proven wrong yet. In the summer, most multiplexes turn into theme parks without the mascots and more comfortable seats.
As Mark Harris put it in a brilliant GQ piece in 2011, “It has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.” Plucking down $13.50 to see Forget Paris on Memorial Day weekend now feels quaint, if not impossible. The two romantic leads are legitimate adults. Billy Crystal was 47; Debra Winger turned 40 three days after the movie’s release. In today’s cinema scope, both would be playing the parent—if not grandparent—of Spider-Man or the Flash. Their friends sport gray hair and earth tone wardrobes not secured with the help of a personal shopper; the actors aren’t sipping Pepsi or trumpeting brands in every shot; nobody here you would describe as “ripped,” though I’d love to have Richard Masur’s sturdy frame and beard game. It’s almost refreshing to see how average the cast looks compared to hot-young-people-in-love monstrosities spectacles like Valentine’s Day or Crazy, Stupid, Love. Yet in Forget Paris, adult appearances don’t translate into adult content.
Clippers fan Billy Crystal (who has been here before) is Mickey Gordon, a veteran NBA referee tasked with escorting his father’s casket to France for the burial. Mickey, who hated his old man, does this purely out of obligation. Still, Mickey is upset when the airline loses his father, and explodes when two days later nothing has happened. Finally, airline executive Ellen Andrews (Winger) emerges with answers. She’s pretty, American, and deftly responds to Mickey’s sarcasm. Appreciation for quality customer service blooms when Ellen drives to the cemetery for the funeral, which is attended by Mickey and two silent grave diggers. She then drives Mickey to the airport, where he decides to actually see Paris—“What do you got here?”—with Ellen serving as a tour guide. The two fall in love, which poses a problem. What two very busy people burrowed into their adult routines do after the happy ending?
The story of their relationship is told through the couple’s friends (a roster of fine character actors, including Masur, Julie Kavner, and Joe Mantegna), who meet for a late-night dinner in New York. They take turns chronicling the travails of Mickey and Ellen, who may or may not be joining them. She gives up her life in Paris to move to California; then he gives up his travel-heavy job to make her happy. Crystal, who also produced, directed, and co-wrote the script, uses the NBA access to full advantage. A highlight is a snappy two-minute montage of Mickey in action. He trades barbs with Reggie Miller. He keeps Patrick Ewing in line. He’s boisterous, at ease, in control. Mickey’s work represents his best self. When a frustrated Ellen advises Mickey to ref high school games, it’s a slap in the face. But he asks why her elderly father (the hilarious William Hickey), who’s now under their care, can’t go to work with her. Understanding the importance of who you must go both ways. That’s where Ellen and Mickey clash. They keep giving up their best parts to make the other one happy. Someone is always going to be disappointed, which means both will be disappointed.
Forget Paris works best when it sticks to these real-life complications, but Crystal, a natural-born ham surfing that Oscar hosting goodwill in 1995, is calling the shots. Rob Reiner is not around to keep him in check; Nora Ephron hasn’t supplied have a quirky, lively female character to provide ballast. Crystal goes back to his stylistic blankie immediately. Mickey’s courtship of Ellen is a relentless attack of one-liners.
Ellen: Wasn’t it a soccer game a few years back where the referee got killed?
Mickey: See I’m against that.
Ellen [in a rare moment of offering a retort]: Good for you! Take a stand.
[Standing in front of The Thinker]
Ellen: Rodin never said what he was thinking.
Mickey: You see, I think he was thinking, “Goddamn, Rodin. Three drinks and I’m nude.”
When Ellen drives Mickey to the airport, Crystal launches into his World B. Free chuck-a-joke, mugging act. She’s absolutely tickled. I was amazed she kept the car away from telephone poles and large trees. Thus establishes a troubling precedent, one that is reaffirmed whenever Crystal veers into comedic territory, such as when Mickey ultimately receives a police escort to get his sperm sample to the hospital. Ellen is a bystander. She’s an audience for Mickey’s repartee. Ellen is not falling in love with Mickey, but with Billy Crystal’s comedic prowess. The problems Mickey and Ellen have are real—ask any married couple. The problem is, they are not. Plus, they frolic in the wake of of When Harry Met Sally…, the wonderful 1989 romantic comedy that (rightly) made Crystal a star. In both films, the couples get to know each other on long car rides. The scores for both movies rely on American Standards. Married friends providing counsel; the differences between men and women get examined. Romantic reunions in public places, though I don’t recommend using Madison Square Garden right before tipoff for that.
The key difference between the films is In When Harry Met Sally…, you saw Meg Ryan and Bill Crystal fall in love with each other—and we believed it. In Forget Paris, you see Billy Crystal fall in love with himself—and we’re in disbelief.