Saturday, December 6, 2008

Too Many Swan Dives Into Empty Pools

I say it all the time. I can’t go to movies that start late in the evening. I can’t be out late. I have to be up early in the morning. That’s the way it is. And then I got an email from a friend informing me of a film playing at the Silent Movie Theater that would start at ten o’clock on Thursday. And not just any film. This was Jerry Lewis’s CRACKING UP. I sighed and sank in my seat as I read this email. There was no way that I could miss it. For those who have never had the pleasure, CRACKING UP aka SMORGASBORD was Jerry’s followup to his comeback vehicle HARDLY WORKING, a surprise hit when it was released in the spring of 1981. CRACKING UP, which turned out to be the final film Jerry would direct (I suppose I should add “to date”), never received a real theatrical release and may be of interest only to diehard Lewis fans but it is indeed interesting. There was a good sized crowd that turned up at the Silent Movie for the event but it was hard to tell what the response was. I think I heard laughter, but that may have just been me.

There’s not much of a plot to summarize but in brief: After several suicide attempts that end in spectacular failure, Warren Nefron (billed as Jerry –Who Else? in the opening credits) seeks out Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman) so he can find out why his life has been such a failure. Warren tells Dr. Pletchick about bad things that have happened to him, leading to various flashbacks and soon enough we also follow Warren on events of the life around him, some of which that pertain to his predicament and many of which that do not.

CRACKING UP was completed in 1983 but Warner Brothers wound up sending it straight to video and cable. At least in New York, the only release it ever received was a two-day engagement at the Thalia revival house in 1985 under its original title SMORGASBORD where it was shown on a double bill with THE KING OF COMEDY. The title on what we saw was also SMORGASBORD and for all I know, the Silent Movie Theater ran the same 35mm print that the Thalia did. After all, how many could there be? Vincent Canby reviewed it on that occasion for The New York Times, calling it “aptly titled” but “a mostly cold buffet of random Lewis routines”, adding that while a few things in it were tolerable, “the rest is grim”. The film has attained scattered fans through the years including, yes, Martin Scorsese and a prominently placed SMORGASBORD poster can be seen during the Paris sequence in Joe Dante’s LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION as well. A good deal of the reason for any appreciation that is out there may be because it fits in with the auteur theory so well. Right at the beginning is a title card reading simply, “A JERRY LEWIS FILM” and that truly describes the experience of watching CRACKING UP. Even more than some of his films that were made at the peak of his popularity, it feels like a distillation of his own comic mindset and also an experiment to see just how far he can sometimes take that comedy before somebody revolts. There’s no real plot and much of it is so random that it achieves a form of purity. It just is what it is and you either accept that or you don’t. In some ways, it actually defies criticism. For a film made in the early eighties it hasn’t dated much at all, maybe because Lewis’s own filmmaking approach was already so out of step with the times by then and it winds up feeling like it could have been made during any period. Even the score by HAWAII FIVE-0’s Morton Stevens (amusingly, no sound is heard at all during his screen credit) feels like that big band swing that Jerry was partial to back in the sixties, one of the things that probably made it feel terribly dated then and isn’t a problem at all now. Filmed in Los Angeles, probably much of it on the Warner backlot, it’s a fairly cheap looking movie at times—the cinematography is by Gerald Finnerman, legendary for his work on the old STAR TREK show but much of the look is pretty ugly, like the giant shadows that are splattered against the wall in the very first scene. Didn’t they take any time to set up the lights correctly?

Fans of CRACKING UP (actually, the title really should be SMORGASBORD—it makes sense when you see the film) are probably fans of Lewis and there are moments sprinkled throughout that such fans will appreciate and it’s hard not to appreciate when certain ridiculous noises emerge from his mouth. Gags are way out all through the running time—the opening credits as Lewis tries to navigate the slippery floor of his psychiatrist’s office without falling down is a beautiful little set piece. There’s very little discipline to all this—the most surreal pieces are so way out that you could almost say that they don’t have the correct believability required in surrealism, if that makes any sense whatsoever and I’m not sure that it does. It should probably be mentioned that Jerry appears as various other characters throughout. At times it veers towards being an anti-comedy as Lewis the director seems to be holding on certain things for so long past the point of tolerance that by a certain point you have to throw up your arms and accept it—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another movie where characters give as many exasperated comic looks to the camera. Some jokes, like the running gag of being punched out by Dick Butkus whenever he lights up a cigarette, don’t seem to be based in anything particular and all we can do is choose to accept them or not. Many scenes seem to conclude with odd opticals, like quick freeze-frames, and all we can do is sit there and think, “I guess that was the joke.” But then there are sections, like when Jerry plays a guru who insists on undergoing surgery without any anesthesia and the extended sequence where he tries to fly on Jolly Fats Weehawkin, the worst airline in the world, that are pretty funny. There’s also a single shot where the suicidal Jerry pours gasoline all over himself, then realizes he doesn’t have a match to light himself on fire so he just walks off shivering and it truly feels worthy of a silent movie.

And then we get a scene like when he goes to a restaurant and encounters a waitress played by Zane Buzby with the worst voice in the world which goes on and on past the point of any tolerance as she drones on with every possible menu option (“…orange, lemon, lemon crush, banana, asparagus, avocado, nectarine, tangerine, cherry or pitless watermelon.”) and the result is in all seriousness painfully, unbearably funny (check it out on Youtube). I can't deny how during this entire scene I was sitting there in absolute hysterics. Having nothing to do with anything that comes before or after, you could call it a digression from the plot but really the entire film is a digression with little rhyme or reason to the order scenes play in. At a certain point everything just stops and the credits roll. There is a scene at the end that attempts to give some semblance of closure but I could almost believe that it was a reshoot done after the fact. Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. appear in cameos and Buddy Lester, who made appearances in earlier Jerry films like as the bartender in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, also turns up briefly. At the very least, it’s much better than HARDLY WORKING which was pretty awful the last time I took a look at it and Jerry even looks physically better this time around.

Getting to see Jerry Lewis’s final film at the Silent Movie was more than worth my going to bed late and I’m grateful they showed it. In many ways it’s an impossible film because it’s so unrelenting and by a certain point you almost want to throw up your hands at its refusal to even pretend to be a normal movie. Maybe it’s Godardian. Maybe it’s just Jerry Lewis being himself. Maybe if I ever did figure it out I’d feel just as crazy as Jerry’s character in the movie. If you could see me right now, this would be my cue to look into the camera, baffled, as I realized that maybe SMORGASBORD is life and life is in fact SMORGASBORD. If you can figure that one out, explain it to me sometime.

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