"Forget Paris" could be subtitled "Billy Does Woody," since Billy Crystal has obviously taken a page or two from Woody Allen's style of romantic comedy for this effort. But standing on its own, this is easily a big step up in the quality of films Crystal writes and/or directs. (And if you doubt that, try sitting through "Memories of Me" or "Mr. Saturday Night.")

Crystal stars as feisty, pint-sized NBA referee Mickey Gordon, who has no trouble telling off Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the film's opening moments but who is rather less aggressive in his personal life.

When he travels to Paris to bury his father and meets up with the woman of his dreams, airline employee Ellen Andrews (Debra Winger), he's rather tentative about it. Ellen is also somewhat tentative, though she is so attracted to Mickey that she places herself in his path a couple of times before he leaves Paris. So, Mickey cancels his plans to go home and begins romancing Ellen full-time.

But Ellen has a bomb to drop, and their relationship is not going to be as smooth as they would like. And later, after they get together and marry and attempt to have children, life seems to trip them up at every turn.

The story of Mickey and Ellen's rocky road to love and marriage, as well as their post-married life together, is told as a series of anecdotes by Mickey's friends, who have gathered to celebrate the impending marriage of sportswriter Andy (the always reliable Joe Mantegna) and his fiance Liz (the hilarious Cynthia Stevenson).

What begins as a "funny story" told to Liz about how Mickey and Ellen first met gradually develops into a full-blown soap opera, albeit a comic one, complete with cliffhangers.

This storytelling device actually sounds more complicated than it is, as Crystal and his co-writers, the team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Man-dell ("A League of Their Own," "Splash," "City Slickers"), have carefully polished the script so that it moves along quite smoothly. And as a director, Crystal shows much more promise than "Mr. Saturday Night" seemed to indicate.

While there is the expected steady stream of one-liners and goofy gags, the warmth of the story comes through quite naturally, and the characters are easy to identify with. That there are a couple of hilarious and memorable set-pieces is simply frosting on the cake.

As usual, Crystal's ego occasionally runs amok — Mickey's friends repeatedly say of him, "He's the greatest!" And at least one early scene, a serious moment that has Ellen revealing an impediment to their relationship, is awkwardly staged.

But the film is also loaded with excellent actors (and basketball stars) in supporting roles, which beefs up the occasional ensemble feel of the film. (Especially William Hickey in a scene-stealing portrayal of Ellen's aged father.)

And it was a good idea to go for an actress as opposed to a comedienne for the role of Ellen. Winger is so good that she helps Crystal look better, especially when he relies too heavily on his usual shtick. During these moments, Winger acts as an anchor, helping the film feel more credible and realistic — even when she has a bird stuck to her head (don't ask — it's one of those set-pieces you have to see for yourself).

"Forget Paris" is, in general, a most enjoyable entry into the romantic comedy sweepstakes we are currently experiencing.

It is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity and sex.