LIZ SMITH: Comedy Mourns (RIP Jerry Lewis)…

 by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Comedy Mourns (RIP Jerry Lewis) … Comedy Rules (“Logan Lucky” and “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”)

“When I do comedy, I act the way I did when I was nine years old.”

“PEOPLE HATE me because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius,” said Jerry Lewis.

I don’t know when Lewis, who died on Sunday said the above, but likely it was long after his fabled departure from Dean Martin, and during the years that his popularity in France had become something of a joke. And when tales of his mercurial behavior were rife. (He wasn’t funny in real life, he could be mean, he was an egomaniac, he was a control freak. Wow what a surprise to hear that about a comic. We could be talking about Lucille Ball, as well.)

I was no great student of Jerry Lewis, but I did find him a completely fascinating personality, as he morphed from the adorable (and oddly sexy!) goofball of those early Martin/Lewis (or Lewis/Martin) comedies, into an assured and — for a long time — very popular star, director and producer of his own vision of himself and his talents.

As his art (yes, it was art) deepened, he lost, inevitably, the gangly sweetness that had played off so well against Dean Martin’s suave, singing straight man. (Although that wacky vulnerability was still very much in evidence in Jerry’s first few efforts after the Martin break-up — “The Delicate Delinquent,” “The Sad Sack,” “The Geisha Boy” and “Visit to a Small Planet.”)

Post-Dean in “The Delicate Delinquent.”

As Gilbert “The Great” Wooley in “The Geisha Boy.”

Jerry Lewis as Kreton in “Visit to a Small Planet.”

While he remained as physically agile as ever, and as committed to silliness (“Cinderfella,” “The Errand Boy,” “The Disorderly Orderly,” “The Family Jewels,” etc) something else was creeping into his performances — aging of course, a slight thickening of his features. But also the darker side of his comedy, best exemplified by his dual role in “The Nutty Professor.” He was still reasonably appealing and convincing as hapless professor Julius Kelp. But as alter ego Buddy Love, the lounge singer with very little love to give, he seemed on far surer ground. The film was a hit, but audience laughter was nervous.

As professor Julius Kelp in “The Nutty Professor.”

Finally, he was out of style — in America at least. He remained famous for the annual Muscular Dystrophy telethons that were, in many ways must-see reality TV of its time. (If you were lucky, you could call in, make a pledge, and talk to a big star. Mary Jo McDonough, who worked here with us for many years, never forgot her chat with … Joan Crawford!)

But show biz, which can cut you off at the knees, can also complete your circle, and in Lewis’ case, the latter prevailed. He was so good as a “real” and serious actor in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy” and a number of other character roles. And he was very satisfying on Broadway in “Damn Yankees” in 1995. (He played Mr. Applegate, The Devil and milked that for all it was worth.)

With Robert De Niro in “King of Comedy.”

But it was in watching and listening to the real-life Jerry Lewis, in interviews that was most interesting. Unlike Robin Williams, who smothered himself in his various personas, rarely giving a completely serious or straight answer, Lewis was, often, all too serious — sometimes wise and witty, other times, the slightly “mean” man of the less pleasant aspects of his off-screen legend. He battled health issues, but he kept working, and from time to time, that skinny boy would emerge from the older man — that man still trying to make sense of his long life, his phenomenally successful, but often condescendingly contested career, the personal failures that afflict us all.

And if pressed — as he always was — he might scream out his signature, “Hey, Laaady!” Although he’d be quick to point out, there was no “hey” involved. And, contrary to myth, this wasn’t something from his antic youth, but from his antic young manhood, in 1963’s “Who’s Minding the Store.”

Some Jerry Lewis aficionados still dispute this. I say, believe the man. It was hysterical, classic, no matter what era.

RIP to the original wild and crazily uninhibited guy.

SPEAKING of comedy, I took in two over the weekend. I liked them both, although audiences seem to prefer one over the other.

I saw Steven Soderbergh’s “return” to filmmaking, “Logan Lucky.” This is a white trash heist film starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and a hilarious Daniel Craig, with all sorts of oddball cameos thrown in — from Seth MacFarlane, to Katie Holmes to Hillary Swank to Riley Keough (Riley is very effective — somebody needs to build an entire film around this young woman — a big film!) It’s quirky, trashy, breezy, goofy oddball fun, not meant to change the world. (Soderbergh took his “Ocean’s” movies and concussed them with not-too-bright working class types. But he doesn’t look down on his new anti-heroes, no smugness or mean spirits.)

Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig in “Logan Lucky.”

Riley Keough in “Logan Lucky.”

And for Daniel Craig alone — with his blonde buzz cut and tattoos and a Southern accent so ripe and sharp as to cut a pecan pie — “Logan Lucky” is worth it. Mr. Soderbergh needs to stop retiring.

I also saw “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” with two of my favorite men, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. The title tells the story, really. Reynolds is the bodyguard with a checkered past, Jackson is the hit man who needs protection before he can testify to authorities. It’s big, funny, smart-alecky non-stop action. There is electric chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson. In fact, the actors deliver superior performances within a genre with which they are both familiar — no phoning it in. I’d go so far as to say Reynolds is better here than in the justly acclaimed “Deadpool.” Again, as with “Logan Lucky,” this movie exists solely to entertain. I was entertained. And boy, do I — do all of us! — need it now.

Highly recommended evenings out for those who want to stop clutching their heads and their stomachs in horror every single day.

Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”



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