Friday April 10, 1998

     While shooting the 1987 delight "The Princess Bride," Billy Crystal met and befriended Andre the Giant, a European immigrant who had come to America and become a benignly fearsome TV wrestler. That friendship inspired "My Giant," a funny, good-natured tale about two men of vastly different statures, both physically and spiritually.
     Crystal stars as Sammy, a Broadway Danny Rose-type talent agent whose fast sweet-talking as a child once convinced his rabbi to try ham. Alas, Sammy's powers of seduction have seriously waned of late--both his wife and his biggest client have dumped him--and he finds himself in Romania, out of work and luck and with a bad sense of direction in every sense of the phrase.
     Until, that is, he meets Max (Washington Wizards center Gheorghe Muresan), a 7-foot-7 tower of unassuming power who rescues Sammy from an automobile accident. Since Sammy knows a nearby cheesy film production is seeking an imposing villainous sort, he begins wooing Max--who prefers his simple life as a monastery's caretaker, outside the gawking eye of the public--in an effort to get the big guy to agree to plant his sizable feet before the movie cameras.
     This triggers a series of misadventures in which Sammy finds himself by turns exploiting and protecting his new charge. And Sammy is of course forced to reflect upon his own messed-up value system while coming to understand what simple if unattainable pleasures would make Max's life complete.
     In order to get Max to deliver his one line in a gladiator movie, Sammy gets him hugely smashed (this is based loosely on some behind-the-scenes lore when Andre the Giant got good and loose to play a scene in "Princess Bride"). Later, to raise money, Sammy books Max for a wrestling gig against a passel of midgets--a surrealistically comic yet grave miscalculation, as he soon discovers.
     *
     Crystal, who also produced and developed the story with screenwriter David Seltzer, is a seasoned pro when it comes to this kind of material, and he serves it expertly, playing Sammy's wit and desperation for all its worth. Still, the film would not have worked if Muresan, who spoke limited English before this project got underway, hadn't been able to deliver a surprisingly soulful performance.
     Muresan may not have the chops to deliver forcefully the lines of Shakespeare his character supposedly knows by heart, but he gets everything else blissfully right, from Max's gentle humor to his (literal, it turns out) heartache. Memo to Shaquille O'Neal: See this movie and you'll understand that there's more to being in movies than just having an appealing presence.
     Max agrees to trek to America, but he's far less interested in auditioning for the Steven Seagal slugfest Sammy has in mind for him than reuniting with the woman he has loved from afar since sharing a fleeting kiss with her two decades back, before his pituitary gland began working overtime. (Seagal even proves a good sport here in a cameo, playing off his difficult behind-the-camera persona.)
     At this point, the film loses a smidgen of steam as it ditches its comedic elements for a finale steeped in pathos. The subplot involving Max's unrequited love is a standard one with no conceivable resolution that could be both narratively satisfying and fresh.
     Still, "My Giant" is both funnier and more sincerely heartfelt than some of the manipulative films Crystal has been in recently and it's his best movie since the first "City Slickers." Director Michael Lehmann ("Heathers," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") devises a plethora of visual gags playing off Crystal and Muresan's pronounced height discrepancy, but shows admirable restraint in not running that joke into the ground.


My Giant, 1998. PG for language, mild violence and brief crude humor. Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Face Production, distributed by Columbia Pictures. Director Michael Lehmann. Producer Billy Crystal. Screenplay David Seltzer, from a story by Crystal and Seltzer. Executive producer Peter Schindler. Director of photography Michael Coulter. Production designer Jackson DeGovia. Editor Stephen Semel. Running time 1 hour, 37 minutes. Billy Crystal as Sammy. Gheorghe Muresan as Max. Kathleen Quinlan as Serena.