Comedy for Jerry Lewis is a deadly trade, the Borscht Belt strangulates. A famous comic goes down in flames, the dead manís parasitic entourage seeks a replacement, Jerry the bellboy is groomed to fill the void. "Looking and feeling just like any ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill, famous, rich star" is an arduous assignment -- Everett Sloane orders fashion lessons from John Carradine, Phil Harris and Keenan Wynn rehearse punchlines, Ina Balin provides the winsome conscience and Peter Lorre the self-disgust. But their Galatea seems hopeless, even flubbing the zinger he was born to deliver ("Ladies and gentlemen, Iíd like to introduce myself, but I donít know me either"). Great student of Tashlin that he is, Lewis understands show business as the fabrication and packaging of image and identity, with the studio puppeteer whispering "Too sweet... Not that humble" in the starís ear. Everything is ersatz, a world of hotel rooms and sound stages: Grass has been replaced with hideous green carpet, Hedda Hopper and Ed Sullivan are absurdly dilated versions of themselves, the protagonist wears George Raftís jacket and sees himself in the mirror as the gangster-star before the reflection wanders away. Who is Jerry Lewis, and why is he funny when heís serious and serious when heís funny? The circuitous demolition of Hans Conreidís antiques-filled room and the prom-dance flashback ensure that The Nutty Professorís bifurcation of hipsterism and schmaltz has fortunately not been harmonized, otherwise you wouldnít have the star floundering in a lip-synching session while backed by three visions of himself, in drag and squealing "yeah-yeah-yeah." A deconstruction of performance in which Lewis repeatedly pushes the "on" and "off" buttons, most brilliantly in the patsyís disastrous nightclub debut, which gives a sublime sense of excruciation later sought by Penn (Mickey One) and Fosse (Lenny). The movie-within-the-movie envisions a modernist infiltrating classical Hollywood, once adapted he plunges to his death. Balin mourns the artist until "the total filmmaker" materializes to point out the fake cityscape in the background and chastise her overacting: "Itís a movie, see?" With Richard Deacon, Del Moore, Scatman Crothers, Buddy Lester, and Nancy Kulp.
--- Fernando F. Croce