Jerry Lewis Demands Respect for the Way He Made You Giggle Like a 12-Year-Old

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11/12/2009 1:32 PM |


Jerry Lewis’s cross-eyed, pained schtick tests (often testily) the limits of our sympathy for the loser underdog. His put-upon characters pull faces to demand our attention, force a decision as to whether they’re pitiful or pathetic; if early Adam Sandler ever struck you as the declawed version of something, this is it. Writing about Anthology‘s Directed by Jerry Lewis series, which begins tonight, J. Hoberman drops some psychoanalytic science; The Errand Boy, playing tomorrow night and next Wednesday night, is an allegory for the popular lowbrow comic’s career, on the terms of his own insecure psyche.

This self-professed “idiot” plays Morty S. Tashman (“What’s the S for?” “Scared. I’m frightened at a lot of things.”), a gofer used as a patsy by the head of “Paramutual” Pictures, who wants an on-set mole. Paramutual is full of petty tyrants, slobbering sycophants, bellowing auteurs and death-scene divas, and bumbling Morty wrecks the Hollywood studio, gag by gag: unleashing a flurry of script pages in the typing pool; spraying a firehose of champagne all over a period-piece set; knocking down a domino row of suits of armors (then revealed to be filled with extras); singing off-key during a dubbing session, and tapdancing his way through the fourth wall in an elaborate crane shot.

There’s some sophisticated formal wit going into that last bit, especially, but Lewis’s structural talents as a director are wrapped up in his improvisatory gifts as a put-upon performer are set up to deliver the spectacle of Lewis mugging, rubber-faced and googly-voiced, through awkward interpersonal encounters (Morty has a hard time pronouncing the names of department heads) or physical trials (he’s crammed into an elevator with gum-snappers and cigar smokers, and caught in the crossfire of a war-movie set when he just wanted to eat a sandwich).

With his buzz cut, spit part and never restful face, destructive dynamo Lewis comes off as a childlike id unmediated by an ego (that’d be Dean Martin, by then running with the Rat Pack). This overgrown child is also a dreamer: he confesses, to a puppet in the prop department, that he came West as a young man to be near the movies, but that his proximity to the dream factory has made it hard to sustain his sense of wonder at make-believe (to start again pure, he announces that “it’s nice” to believe that the puppet isn’t being manipulated by an offscreen hand).

The film’s prologue kids showbiz artifice with puerile curtain-yanks on basic movie set-ups: cowboy actors are afraid of horses, and romantic leads often dislike each other; in the film’s best bit, Morty sneaks into the studio boardroom, chomps a stogie, and conducts an invisible audience/imaginary meeting in time with the brassy score. Setups and punchlines done with clear skill, these are also petulant jokes made at the expense of movie-biz lies and vanities, from someone always most popular among kids and other simpletons. Among, that is, condescended-to innocents. Which isn’t to say this crowd-pleaser doesn’t have a happy ending: Lewis eventually creates a credentialed director figure to launch him on an odds-beating path to stardom, after first delivering a speech testifying to the purity and artistry of Lewis’s goofball performance-the French hadn’t come on the scene to legitimize him yet.