Crystal Lite

"We'll always have Paris."
Those immortal words, uttered by Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in the suspense-filled final moments of Casablanca, endure to this day as one of the most unabashedly romantic farewells of all time.

Director Billy Crystal's Forget Paris, as its title -- a riff on the classic line -- implies, is something else altogether, yet another in a long line of contemporary can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em love stories in which rapid-fire one-liners stand in for genuine sentiment. The movie makes you laugh, to be sure, but it doesn't make you believe in or care much about its two central characters -- Mickey (Crystal), an argumentative, self-centered NBA referee, and Ellen (Debra Winger), an American working as an executive for a French airline.

The unlikely lovers-to-be meet when Ellen's airline misplaces the casket bearing Mickey's father en route to being buried outside of Paris. After two days of locking horns with unresponsive company reps, Mickey finally gets satisfaction from Ellen, who not only locates and returns the corpse, but also comps the referee's stay and gives him a whirlwind tour of the city. It's love at first sight but, alas, he has games to officiate and she has an airline to, well, work for. After a night of passionate lovemaking with Ellen, he returns to the States.

But Mickey is smitten. He can not concentrate on roundball. One night he snaps, tossing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out of the legendary Laker center's farewell game, then follows up by ejecting the entire starting lineups for both teams. The outburst earns Mickey a one-week suspension (not to mention belly laughs from the audience), which he takes advantage of to fly to -- you guessed it -- Paris.

Mickey and Ellen rekindle their romance in earnest, and although he knows it's awfully sudden, Mickey pops the question. Ellen, stunned, lets slip one small but important detail that she so far has neglected to mention: She's already married. Unhappily, of course, but married nonetheless. The crestfallen Mickey flies back to the U.S., resolved to resume the carefree bachelor life he enjoyed before he ever set foot in France. Weeks pass. Mickey tries, but he can't get Ellen out of his system. One night there is a knock at Mickey's hotel room door. Surprise, surprise, surprise! Ellen has deserted her husband to marry Mickey after all.

All goes well for a while, but then a new basketball season begins. He's never home. She has to accept huge pay and prestige cuts to take a crappy job with a U.S. airline. Cracks develop in the relationship. They try this, they try that, they fight, they patch things up, they attempt to have a kid, they fail at that, they separate. In short they go through all the stages that many self-absorbed modern couples do, wisecracking all the way.

When Harry Met Sally... he was just An American in Paris trying to give Annie Hall a French Kiss. Or something like that. Crystal, who apparently had incredible access to NBA stars such as Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Reggie Miller, and David Robinson, doesn't have nearly as much on-court fun as he should with his skyscraping supporting cast. He concentrates instead on the romantic pitfalls awaiting his likable but bland couple.

Even more glib than David Frankel's Miami Rhapsody, Crystal's film keeps the laughs coming while making one or two piquant observations about the difficulty of maintaining lasting relationships, but it never really gets under your skin. Neither Crystal's Mickey nor Winger's Ellen seem particularly special or worthy of much audience sympathy. They're just two normal people who want the benefits of marriage without making the necessary compromises or sacrifices. And if their plight is less than soul-stirring, the absence of heat between them is downright numbing; neither appears for one moment to feel any genuine emotion for the other. Crystal and Winger appear less like lovers than awkward guests at a dinner party.

You can bet Bogey and Bergman wouldn't have made the same mistake. Sitting through Forget Paris is not without its rewards. The film is every bit as quick-witted as you'd expect a Billy Crystal project to be. You will laugh, and you might even cry. But Forget Paris glides by far too slickly to make any lasting impressions. You'll forget it soon enough.

 
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