Jerry Lewis: Method To The Madness debuts tonight on Encore at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Jerry Lewis is a genius who redefined the way people think about comedy forever—and if you think differently, you have to deal with Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Steven Spielberg, Billy Crystal, and Carol Burnett, among countless others. If you don’t acknowledge Jerry Lewis as such, they say, then you can’t be friends with them. (I think that was the only thing stopping most of you.) There’s an overwhelming tone of reverence on Jerry Lewis: Method To The Madness, and obviously it’s completely earned. Jerry Lewis revolutionized not only the on camera side of physical comedy and textured-yet-simple storytelling, but also everything that happened behind-the-scenes. He was one of the industry’s first and most prolific multihyphenates, writing and directing the films he starred in. And hey, he even created a system for video playback so he could watch the scenes he just shot, which is something that’s so basic on all of today’s movie sets that it’s incredible to think that someone came up with the idea at one point.
There are a lot of wonderful things you can say about Jerry Lewis. The problem is there might be too many crammed into Method. The documentary is so overwhelmed by how many great things it can say about Lewis that, at times, it feels like it’s not saying anything at all.
Method happens in two parts, cut between one another. There’s footage from a recent live performance, part of Jerry Lewis’ world tour. The 85 year old sings, he dances, he reprises classic comedy bits, he takes questions from the audience and riffs with them. While this is happening, we get a history lesson about Lewis—how his famous father influenced his comedy, what his famous partnership was like with Dean Martin, and the ways he worked within the Hollywood system to craft his many films, which were often satires of the film industry itself.
The documentary works best in these broad strokes. The section on Dean Martin, for example, thoroughly demonstrates the magical chemistry between the two men, one that occasionally bordered on deep romance. It also allows for present-day Lewis to praise Martin and talk about how not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about his old partner. But other than showing different clips from different movies/live shows, there isn’t much variety to what’s being said. If one, maybe two people talk about how famous the two were with the ladies, and we see footage of a flock of women waiting outside their hotel window, then the point has been made. Yet there are multiple voices to follow—some from Martin’s family, some from Lewis’, some well-known comics themselves—that say essentially the same thing.
TK doesn’t hold much faith in its narrators. They often rehash what the previous person has said, or at the very least visit some platitude about Lewis. At one point Jerry Seinfeld deconstructs a joke that Lewis had done on stage, and marvels at how simple it was—and what amount of genius was required to do it. “It takes a genius to know how to make a car drive funny,” he says. He does the same thing with a few other jokes later, too, and at other times just speaks generally about Lewis’ talent. It’s the same all over the map; each person who’s interviewed has about three or four highly specific things to say, they stick around taking up space. Well, except for the producer of American Idol, who I think appears three times—once to comment on what the judges might say about Lewis’ compellingly obnoxious singing voice, once for something else, and once at the end to join everyone in saying, “Nice lady!”
Lewis himself narrates a good portion of the story, but the clips used in the documentary come from all different times. Some are from a press conference, some from backstage at his show, some from an office, some from some other office. It’s his story, but the disjointed nature of the questioning muddles what he’s trying to say. He has some really interesting stories about what it was like behind the scenes of a film that required him to break hundreds of vases just so he could perform an amazing sequence where he almost drops a bunch of them. He discusses the origins of his famous typewriter bit and humbly describes how he created the video playback system. But often he’s whisked off the camera just when he’s about to get into something, overshadowed by jump-cut sequences from his films.
Still, a lot of these things are at the top of my mind, but they only seem more annoying in hindsight. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Lewis in action—the way he is able to contort his face, even to this day, is absolutely one of a kind. He also has incredible rapport with the audience, as evidenced by his off-the-cuff responses to questions (or offers to sleep with him) at his show. Method is a great primer for someone who doesn’t know much about Jerry Lewis and wants a general overview of what he was like—and is ready to marvel at longer stretches of what he’s like as a vibrant old man, still making people laugh after so many years.
But there’s one scene that best encapsulates the way I feel about the documentary: Lewis visits a rehearsal session for his band, where he mucks around with the conductor and asks the horn section to play some notes that always struck him as compelling. He makes a few people laugh before leaving in a sea of “Thank you Jerry!”’s, whisked off to whatever else he had to be doing so the band could get back to work. It feels an awful lot like Method is more concerned with momentum and scope than with depth, so it’s always looking past what it’s talking about in search of something even more deep or profound to say about Jerry Lewis. Not surprisingly, he’s incredible when he speaks for himself; simply said, I wanted more Jerry.