The Washington Post

‘Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,’ with all the unhappy stuff left out

You’d have to be a total drip to miss the manic merriment in a two-hour documentary romp through the funniest work of comic actor and director Jerry Lewis. The clips alone! First from his heyday with Dean Martin and then culled from the helium highs of his film career — “The Bellboy, “Cinderfella,” “The Nutty Professor” and on and on. What’s not to like?

But midway through director Gregg Barson’s far-too-feathered “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” airing Saturday night on Encore, it begins to dawn on a viewer that this project is merely an exercise in adulation. Barson lobbied the now 85-year-old Lewis for years to gain access and create a definitive biographical film; Lewis initially resisted and then picked Barson from (according to Lewis) a field of suitors.

The result is a film that seeks only to appease Lewis’s lifelong misconception that he is under-loved, or that he never got the respect he deserved from his Hollywood peers. Even the Oscar statuette he travels with (awarded in 2009 for humanitarianism rather than his work), has barely calmed his resentment. The wealth apparently was no balm either, and this essential insecurity is but one thematic area left unexplored here.

Instead, “Method” becomes one of those dreary exercises in talking about comedy rather than showing comedy. As the clips unspool, an all-star arrangement of interviewees (Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Richard Belzer, Steven Spielberg, Carl Reiner, Quentin Tarantino, Alec Baldwin, etc.) simply fawn about Lewis’s signature moves. Even then, it takes a while to get down to the business of speaking specifically to mechanics and choreography — the “method” promised in the title.

During the summer, I sat in a roomful of TV critics and reporters for a press conference arranged by Encore so Lewis could talk about the film. Quickly — and sometimes bizarrely, as is his way — Lewis was holding forth on many subjects besides the making of this documentary. He was grumpy about the frenetic pace of today’s Twitter-brained culture.

“Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Encore. (© 2011 Courtesy of Starz)

“We’re not going to have human beings in 20 years,” he carped. “People don’t know how to have conversations with each other.” He seemed especially aggrieved about the lower standards he saw in film and television. “I don’t allow my daughter to use the term ‘TV’ in our house,” he snapped. “It’s television. It’s a miracle.”

He had many of us eating out of the palm of his hand that day. I thus eagerly awaited “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” assuming it would drill beneath the craggy veneer of this complicated man. It would explore the darkness within. Who can be in a room with Jerry Lewis and not pick up some sense of a darkness within?

Apparently Barson can, whether acting out of deliberate kindness or from debilitating restraint. Thus, “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” only glancingly describes Lewis’s life story — his upbringing as the son of vaudeville performers, his earliest jobs. It tells only one love story (Lewis’s undying affection for his former comedic half, Dean Martin, a collaboration that — onstage, on-screen and in recollection — comes with a complicated tinge of the homoerotic) and skips any reference to his two marriages or other relationships. Two of Lewis’s sons appear almost incidentally, because they are working with/for him.

To that, add an unsettling laundry list of absent subjects: The ill-conceived, never-released 1970s film about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp. The annual muscular dystrophy Labor Day telethons to which Lewis was obsessively devoted and from which he was officially (and apparently bitterly) relieved of duty this year; the painkiller addiction; the heart attacks; the inopportune remarks about gays and women. On the subject of women, if it weren’t for occasional observations from Carol Burnett and Dean Martin’s daughter, this entire film would feel like a men’s club.

The old clips are still a hoot, but there’s a limit to how much compressed air a viewer can take, listening to a bunch of old men talk about how funny their friend was.

That’s not a documentary, that’s a wake.

Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis

(125 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on Encore.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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