NEW YORK — WHAT is the fascination that basketball players seem to hold for short men? Attend any New York Knicks game, and you'll see Woody Allen and Spike Lee on the sidelines. In the new romantic comedy, ''Forget Paris,'' in which Billy Crystal plays a pro-basketball referee, one gets the feeling that the star, producer, director, and co-writer was just as eager to share screen space with such real-life sports luminaries as Charles Barkley as he was with Debra Winger.
The film, like Crystal's hit ''When Harry Met Sally,'' is less interested in conventional romance than it is in exploring problematical aspects of relationships.
That picture asked the by-now familiar question of whether men and women can be friends without having a physical relationship, and the title characters didn't become lovers until nearly the final reel. In ''Forget Paris,'' the man and woman meet, fall in love, and get married early on. But the film's true focus is about what happens after that, when the real work of a relationship begins.
In typical Hollywood fashion, the stars ''meet cute.'' Crystal plays Mickey, who accompanies his father's body to Paris in order to bury him with his former war buddies. Winger plays Ellen, an airline representative who must deal with him when the casket, like any piece of luggage, is misplaced. Soon (after the crisis is resolved), the pair are frolicking amid highly photogenic Paris, enjoying a few days of romance before Mickey must return home.
Before long, Ellen, who is separated from her husband, leaves her job to marry Mickey and move in with him in Los Angeles.
The two are at first deliriously happy, but soon complications arise. Mickey's job keeps him on the road for weeks at a time, Ellen is miserable in her new job, and Mickey can't stand Ellen's senile father (William Hickey), who takes up residence with them.
What makes the film work is its sensitive examination of the way that couples must cope with the unromantic realities of trying to make a life together. Movies often present wildly disparate characters who meet and fall in love, but we rarely get to see what happens to them after the final clinch.
The title of ''Forget Paris'' refers to the advice that Mickey and Ellen get from friends whenever they long for the first few idyllic days that they spent together. It's rare that such sober, mature thinking permeates a Hollywood love story.
This being a Billy Crystal movie, there are also many moments of hilarity, with his crack comic timing and delivery making even the less witty lines seem wildly funny. Winger, who has been underutilized in movies in the last few years, more than holds her own. In one wacky episode involving a wounded pigeon, she displays quite a knack for physical comedy.
The film also has a clever structure, with the events being related as a story that Mickey's best friend (Joe Mantegna) is telling his nervous fiancee (the funny Cynthia Stevenson) while waiting for Mickey to join them for dinner. The original framing device enables us to see the story from various perspectives.
American filmgoers have embraced such recent romantic comedies as ''French Kiss'' and ''While You Were Sleeping,'' but in both those films the couples got together at the end, with the last shot showing them walk off into the sunset hand in hand.
''Forget Paris'' has the courage to begin where stories like this usually end.
* 'Forget Paris' is rated PG-13.
The film's true focus is about what happens after marriage, when the real work of a relationship begins.