DVD Review: Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis

STUDIO: Anchor Bay | DIRECTOR: Gregg Barson
DVD RELEASE DATE: 1/22/2013 | PRICE: DVD $19.98
SPECS: NR | 116 min. | Documentary | 1:78:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall



Jerry Lewis has long divided opinion in the U.S. For decades, there were those who loved him and those who hated him, and never the twain did meet. When he was dismissed from his longtime position as national chairman by the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 2011, the tables turned, however, and he became a figure of sympathy for most Americans.

Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis sceneThus, it would seem like this would be the best time for an in-depth documentary about the legendary comedian to appear. Method to the Madness, which premiered on the Encore Channel in December, 2011 and is exec-produced by Lewis, is not that documentary. It presents some wonderful vintage film clips of Lewis doing what he did best in the Fifties and Sixties, and contains an extremely amiable succession of talking heads, but the film avoids far more than it examines.

Documentarian Gregg Barson unwisely uses Jerry’s current live stage act as a frame device for the picture. Jerry was a film comedian par excellence and has been an unpredictable and very funny guest on talk and variety shows, but his schmaltzy standup consists of extremely old (often off-color) jokes and off-handed exchanges with the audience. (One moment included here finds a devout fan saying she has two people she has always wanted to meet — “my No.1 was God and my No. 2 was you!”)

The praise showered on Jerry by the talking heads is undercut by showcasing him as a live act, his material marking him as a performer who remains untouched by the standup comedy revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies.

The clips from Lewis’s films are another matter entirely. His movie comedy is his one true, profound legacy, and Barson includes a number of his best-remembered moments as well as many quick, superb sight gags. Given that it lacks both biographical detail and any sort of historical context for Lewis’s work, Method works best when it simply presents these montages of Jerry’s best movie moments.

Cinderfella movie scene

Jerry Lewis in 1960s' Cinderfella, directed by Frank Tashlin.

A good amount of the film’s running time, though, is concentrated on the talking heads, a sizeable array of performers and directors who rhapsodize about Jerry, from Carol Burnett and Steven Spielberg (War Horse)  to Eddie Murphy (Tower Heist) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction).

The single most interesting bit of celebrity “testimony” to Jerry’s comic talent is Carl Reiner’s account of being bowled over in 1947 when he saw Martin and Lewis before they went on to national fame. (“I was so impressed… they had no act, and that’s what made it brilliant… It was this guy interrupting his friend from singing, that’s the whole thing… I have never seen anything as funny in my life.”)

Unlike the A&E “Biography” and “E! True Hollywood Stories” profiles of Lewis, Method veers sharply away from any contentious subjects. Lewis cultists will be interested to hear Jerry resume the tack taken in the audio commentaries included on the Paramount DVD releases of his work, where he minimized the contributions of the mega-talented comedy filmmaker Frank Tashlin when discussing the films of his that Tashlin directed. Here Jerry’s discussion of the absolutely perfect stairway sequence in Tashlin’s Cinderfella revolves around the phrase, “I” shot that whole sequence in four hours…”

Also, no mention at all is made of the downturn in Lewis’s film fortunes in the late Sixties or his infamous unreleased Holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried. Most significantly, his nearly 60-year experience as the main fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association is entirely absent, except for the famous moment when Frank Sinatra (Suddenly) reunited Martin and Lewis on the MDA telethon in 1976.

As it leaps around in time — and keeps returning to Jerry on a nightclub stage, doing material Milton Berle and Henny Youngman would’ve jettisoned several generations ago — it becomes clear that Method is useful primarily as a clip “dispenser” (mention of Jerry’s popularity on YouTube is cited at one point) and for the moments when Lewis comes up with odd factoids. The best is probably the notion that the French are sixth on the list someone (whom we’ll never know) fashioned of the countries that most love Jerry Lewis. For those who care, the list runs: Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, and then France.

Diehard Jerry fans will be disappointed that the DVD release features no extras. Surely there must’ve been some factoid or moment of fan worship that hit the cutting room floor?


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”