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 My Giant, starring Billy Crystal, Kathleen Quinlan, and erstwhile Snickers pitchman Gheorghe Muresan.
Without question, My Giant is the best movie ever made featuring 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan, the co-tallest player in NBA history, projectile-vomiting on Boy Meets World teen dream Rider Strong. If that doesn’t get you nostalgic, well, good for you. This is a time capsule you open at your own peril, not because of Muresan. The movie embarrasses him, not the other way around.
The blame falls on Billy Crystal, star and producer of this 1998 box-office flop and frequent The Simpsons punching bag. The longtime Clippers fan was not always an object of derision. He was sharp and funny enough to star in a buddy cop movie (1986’s Running Scared)—with Gregory Hines, of all people. He romanced a young Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally… and everybody was fine with it. City Slickers was good enough to warrant a sequel. Then the best and worst thing happened in 1990: he hosted the Academy Awards, the plum gig for an entertainer, especially a baby boomer. The gig went too well. Crystal’s movie work denigrated into shameless mugging.
This culminates in 1995’s Forget Paris, where Crystal plays an NBA referee who falls in love with an equally career-obsessed woman during an otherwise miserable trip to Paris. NBA fans will appreciate the cameos of NBA royalty—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, to name a few—but the premise is terrific: two people fall in love then try to cram each other into their regular, demanding lives before figuring out how. It’s poised to be one of those rare relationship movies for grown-ups, until Crystal (who also directed, produced, and co-wrote the script) decimates it with his me-first approach, chucking up jokes like Kobe Bryant in the Chris Mihm years. Co-star Debra Winger, a wonderful actress, is shackled to the same pattern: Crystal delivers a line and the camera cuts to her laughing like a party guest stuck in a conversation she can’t escape. Winger, it should be noted, temporarily retired from acting afterward.
After playing an NBA referee and regularly sitting courtside at Clippers games, Crystal once again dipped into the NBA well two years later, tabbing Muresan to play the straight man to his one-liners.
Nineteen years is an eon in the passage of sports time. Younger readers might wonder if Muresan was a big deal. After all, the remaining movies in this column—if the editors at HOOP don’t pivot hard toward sound judgment—will feature stars as the leads. Or at the very least All-Stars. Muresan was neither. He was a key player for the Bullets over three seasons, including a frisky, underrated ’97 squad with Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and Rod Strickland. Unlike some very big men—Manute Bol, Mark Eaton—Muresan was comfortable with the ball in his hands. In 1995-96, he averaged 14.5 points a game and won Most Improved Player. He was a delight in a couple of Snickers commercials from around that time. Sadly, injuries reduced him to a colorful footnote; My Giant was the last highlight in his brief, height-based celebrity. Muresan didn’t play a game in 1997-98, which some Washington teammates blamed on him not wearing his arch supports when shooting My Giant. From 1998 to 2000, he played a combined 31 games for the Nets and Wizards, and that was it. So Muresan earned another distinction: He began the Nets’ rich history of obtaining high-profile centers (Todd MacCulloch, Dikeme Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning) who arrived in East Rutherford, breathed in the rich, swampy air and proceeded to decompose.
If Winger got mowed, you can imagine how Muresan fares in My Giant. He plays Max, a monastery-bound recluse who rescues flailing talent agent Sam (Crystal) after his sports car goes topsy-turvy in the Romanian countryside. Sam repays Max by cajoling his savior into returning with him to America. Sam then drags the poor dope—who believes he’s reuniting with a teenage love—across the country to co-star in a Steven Seagal movie, which even in 1998 was a losing proposition. Height and proficiency as a pitchman do not translate to acting. Beyond a minute, Muresan’s shortcomings are exposed, namely that his somnolent, waffle batter-thick accent makes him hard to understand. Not that the script does Muresan any favors, cementing Max as a charming goon obsessed with a long-ago crush. Basically, he’s a lovestruck 13-year-old whom Crystal employs as a prop for a barrage of creaky jokes. His fingers are like pickles! Please don’t say fei-fi-fo-fum! Is there a penis joke delivered by an old lady? Given the movie’s title, I think you know the answer.
My Giant should be for kids, but Crystal tries to pass this off as Broadway Danny Rose with heart, which means nobody is enjoying this. That Muresan is not the focal point is like making a movie about a mousy girl who removes her glasses and becomes breathtaking. Only she’s not the lead. Instead it’s the quippy best friend, the one incapable of breathing without lobbing an exasperating, coy comment, gobbling screen time.
We’re asked to care about the wrong person, and he’s not all that. Crystal has nobody to play off. Sam breezily accumulates life lessons and kudos he doesn’t earn. Poor Muresan has nobody to lift him through the scenes. Ray Allen had Denzel Washington, Bill Nunn, and Rosario Dawson in He Got Game. Kevin Durant had Brandon T. Jackson in Thunderstruck. The only person who interacts with Muresan as a human being is old pro Kathleen Quinlan, by which point the movie has us glued to the time remaining, praying that we don’t have many more warm-and-fuzzies to choke down.
My Giant tries to redeem Max’s shoddy treatment in two scenes, a weak mea culpa for 95 minutes of soft, gentle patronizing. Muresan’s presence here inadvertently reaffirms our worst traits. We can’t accept anything that’s different, so we mock it instead of seeking to understand. We gawk. We wipe away our bad behavior with a lame apology or a bold gesture or both. The happy ending arrives, the scene fades to black, and we do this all over again—until we come to our senses. Thankfully, My Giant 2 is not listed on IMDb. For now. Muresan’s son does have game; he plays forward at Georgetown.