For Reel


The Family Jewels (1965)
May 28, 2016, 7:11 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Jerry Lewis
3.5 Stars
The Family JewelsThe Family Jewels at once shows Jerry Lewis at his most overtly sentimental and narratively frustrating. That is, while he immediately introduces a sickly-sweet dynamic between a young precocious girl (Donna Butterworth) and her beloved family chauffeur (Lewis), he also shows an incredible dismissiveness in the way that he tosses aside that dynamic in order to focus on increasingly long comedic set pieces. It’s a frustrating structure, but one which also somehow works—perhaps because, like the young girl, the audience knows each of these stops is essentially useless because ultimately she belongs with the chauffeur. This same sense of frustration and anxiety is perhaps best demonstrated when Lewis is given control of a gas station for ten minutes and, inevitably, all hell breaks loose—both the character and the artist don’t quite know when to stop. Those who dismiss Lewis’ sense of humor will find each of the uncle visits insufferable, but while they may not show the obvious visual genius of something like The Ladies Man, they do feature some genuinely witty plays with the camera (in one scene involving a photographer uncle, there is no difference between the camera lens shooting the film and the camera that exists within the film’s world).

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Which Way to the Front? (1970)
March 27, 2016, 11:53 pm
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Director: Jerry Lewis
3 Stars
Which Way to the FrontIn the decade between The Bellboy and Which Way to the Front?, Jerry Lewis directed a film almost every year (in addition to starring in other films, like those of Frank Tashlin) and was on a career high after his unceremonious split with Dean Martin. Depending on who you ask, those ten years are either a remarkable feat of sustained brilliance or a blight on screen comedy. Detractors of Lewis would do well to steer clear of Which Way to the Front?—the humor plays as even more desperate than usual, with Lewis’ performance as Kesselring insisting upon thirty minutes of sustained yelling. And yet the picture also contains many of the idiosyncrasies that make Lewis a unique figure in not only 1960s comedy, but screen comedy in general. Somehow, Lewis bridges the gap between his fascination with consumerism and the second World War—in the film, he plays Brendan Byers II, a playboy who volunteers for the army before being classified as 4-F. His rejection sends him into catatonic fits, and to the supercapitalist his participation in the war becomes a commodity valued higher than any other. Whereas Chaplin and Lubitsch made their Nazi parodies as the war was unfolding, Lewis’ satire involves setting the war in 1960s America (the title card reading 1943 plays like a gag), where civilians claw to be made pawns in a political context. Furthermore, that a group of rejects ultimately kills Hitler not only predates Tarantino’s fantasy in Inglourious Basterds, but puts a ribbon on what Lewis was after with the final scene of The Bellboy—he appeals to the underestimated working man, who has the potential to contribute brilliance if only his voice is heard.



The Bellboy (1960)
March 27, 2016, 11:50 pm
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Director: Jerry Lewis
3.5 Stars
The BellboyJerry Lewis’ first film as a director begins with what feels like an apology from a phony Paramount executive, who explains that the film has a plotless nature and is simply a series of gags strung together. This explanation is a rare moment in Lewis’ filmography in which he attempts to explain his process to the audience and indulges the desire to defend his sensibilities—it is not just a preamble for the film to follow, but the marked birth of a new screen auteur. The Bellboy has the feel of flipping through a comedian’s notepad of half-sketched ideas, but it is peppered with a handful of wondrously surreal touches–a flashbulb that turns night into day; a restaurant window that looks out into a hotel swimming pool. Importantly, Lewis also plays with the medium of film itself as a means of setting up a joke. On more than one occasion, he uses offscreen space as a punchline. When the eponymous bellboy (Lewis) is tasked with setting up hundreds of chairs in a theater, it is accomplished in less than a minute. Later, he attempts to be seated at a restaurant, only to find a previously empty bar overcrowded in the time it took the camera to pan. Lewis’ genius involves this very play between his screen persona and the medium itself–as a comedian, Lewis is a performer who not only knows he’s being watched and laughed at, but one who knows the eccentricities of the framings and edits happening around him.



The Ladies Man (1961)
January 13, 2016, 10:48 pm
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Director: Jerry Lewis
4 Stars
The Ladies ManMilltown is introduced as “a very nervous little community” in the opening scene of The Ladies Man, quickly followed by a tracking shot of an older woman walking down an empty sidewalk. Suddenly, a man shouts her name and, having been startled, she screams and falls onto a drug store window, signaling the beginning of a Rube Goldberg-like descent into madness that brings the town into a complete frenzy. This sequence perfectly illustrates the manic tone of a typical Jerry Lewis vehicle–the ordinary is disturbed into an ever-escalating hysteria, with improbable events stacked upon each other in a pyramid of neuroses. When the formula works (as it does in The Ladies Man) it is something entirely unique, developing a rich comedic world as specific as those of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. Lewis’ personal rants about the lack of funny women in recent years has cast an eye towards his misogyny, and here is a film that fully considers the complexities of his relationship with women. A heartbreak sends his character into an adolescent state where he becomes catatonic around women. In one scene early on, Lewis throws a fit while sitting in a highchair and being handfed by a woman that could be his mother. As the film progresses, he must domesticate himself under the watchful eye of every feminine stereotype of the time, complete with a convincing Marilyn Monroe impersonator. The devolution into a psychic fantasy in the second half perhaps suggests a thinness in the script–Lewis is no stranger to sequences that play just a little too long, and many of these do. Regardless, The Ladies Man is fascinating throughout, and the dollhouse set is a masterpiece of scale and stylistic artifice, with the open fourth wall and empty mirror frames complicating notions of domesticity and performance.