Cracking Up

Director: Jerry Lewis            
Jerry Lewis, Herb Edelman, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr.

Not to be confused with the 1977 comedy of the same name, Cracking Up might be considered by many to be the last "pure" Jerry Lewis movie. That is, the last Jerry Lewis movie where he not only was the One day, all the bad reviews finally got to Jerrycentral star, but was also the director and screenwriter. Though he actually did co-write this particular screenplay with another writer, there's no mistaking the finished movie for anything else but a pure Jerry Lewis movie, one that can be placed beside such movies made 20 or more years earlier. Unfortunately, one of the common traits this particular Lewis movie shares with those older ones is that it isn't very good at all. Upon watching it, it's easy to understand why its American distributor upon seeing it got cold feet and gave it almost no release, even though the Jerry Lewis movie released the previous year (Hardly Working) managed to generate a respectable amount at the box office despite being far worse than this effort.

It's so easy to bash Lewis, dismissing him as an strident goofball who can do nothing but make weird faces. While that is one side of his comic act, it's unfair and inaccurate to label all of his comedy as such. Plus, I don't want anyone to think that my panning of Cracking Up comes from having this wrong viewpoint of Lewis. Though there have certainly been some Lewis movies I have despised (Which Way To The Front, The Family Jewels), there have been some that have managed to tickle me throughout, like Don't Give Up The Ship and The Ladies' Man. (In fact the latter's "hat" sequence I personally think is one of the funniest sequences in Hollywood history.) In the better Lewis movies such as these, you not only get to see him successfully perform a wide range of comic styles, but you also see his talents as a director when he got behind the chair. However, his gain of creative control was a double-edged sword. Though at first it helped to showcase his talent, as the years went by it ultimately gave him his bad reputation. Looking at his output after The Nutty Professor, it becomes clear that Lewis didn't realize that he was becoming too old to play goofballs, that he was tiring audiences by repeating the same basic characters and gags over and over, and audiences' comic tastes were evolving to embrace different (and edgier) styles.

You might then think that during his lengthy absence from the screen after completing Which Way To The Front in 1970, Lewis might have reflected on his descent and observed the new direction comedy was taken, and use what he learned to not only polish his standard schtick into something that seemed "There is no cure yet for Jerrylewisitus, as the movie 'When Nature Calls' made clear."more fresh, but maybe even be inspired enough by the new generation of comedians so that he'd come up with new and modern comic material that better reflected the era he now found himself in. Though upon seeing Cracking Up (or Hardly Working, for that matter), it quickly becomes clear that Lewis either was purposely ignoring the new styles of comedy, or was simply ignorant of its evolution that had started even before his hiatus. If you place this movie next to his efforts 15-20 years earlier, in almost every aspect it's as if no time had passed at all between the making of this movie and those others; we have the same kind of gags, the same kind of oddball characters, all in the exact style Lewis established decades earlier. It's as if Lewis hadn't learned anything new about comedy in all those years. Though at the same time it's as if Lewis had forgotten a lot of what he learned, because from a technical viewpoint (directing, editing, etc.), the results are executed with staggering incompetence. Lewis was still ill at the time, which might explain a lot of this, but it makes no sense to work under such dire conditions if your output is going to be so substandard - especially if others are to be exposed to it later. Company doesn't love misery.

Like some of Jerry Lewis' other movies (such as The Bellboy), this movie has no real plot to it, instead introducing us to a character that connects various comic vignettes together enough times so that the running time reaches feature-film length. This time around Lewis plays Warren Nefron, a loser who is not just a nerd and a klutz, but the unluckiest screw-up ever to walk the earth. He's so inept at everything, he can't even properly execute what seem to be foolproof ways to do himself in, as we see in the opening sequence. Desperate to find some kind of end to his suffering, he goes to psychiatrist Jonas Pletchick (Edelman) for help, and it's from this place where all the various remaining comic vignettes originate.

Though this time around, the methods of bringing in these vignettes is somewhat different than in Lewis' other movies. In his previous movies, the comic vignettes were centered around one individual, in one basic location; The Bellboy's vignettes all concerned wacky experiences the title figure had in various parts of a hotel, and The Ladies' Man's vignettes all concerned the wacky experiences a male handyman had working at a dormitory at a women's school. Cracking Up does have some vignettes that concern Nefron struggling with his unluckiness in various ways, both in and out of the psychiatrist's office. But there are a lot of sketches that instead focus on different characters, in much different environments. One sequence has Nefron meeting a guru (also played by Lewis), then soon afterwards the movie temporarily puts Nefron out of the movie so it can focus on a lengthy sequence of the guru being prepared for surgery. Another sequence has Nefron's car break down on a road, and then Nefron is once again put aside so that the focus can be placed on a passing southern sheriff (Lewis again) who races past Nefron in pursuit of a speeding motorist. And one time in the psychiatrist's office, Nefron tells the doctor about an unlucky French ancestor of his, and once again Nefron is taken out of the picture so we can see two lengthy vignettes of this other character in 15th century France.

With barely a connection between one vignette and other, the movie is quite a bizarre jumble of everything - the original title of the movie His playing of a guru got Jerry some very frosty notices from the criticswas, in fact, Smorgasbord. It's somewhat disconcerting at times; had the movie been clearly divided into separate sketches like a movie such as Prime Time, this potpourri would be somewhat more digestible. Still, considering there is no real plot here, I guess it isn't a big objection. As long as the movie keeps making us laugh, a problem like that shouldn't be a real concern. But in this particular case the problem becomes extremely glaring, because, to put it quite bluntly, this movie just isn't funny. It's not just because the gags themselves are not funny, though there are certainly quite a few instances where the idea behind a particular gag instantly dooms itself into never having a chance of generating a laugh. A number of these failed gags are ones that we've seen countless times elsewhere, as when some wannabe performers hold up a bank so that they can do a soft shoe routine in front of the security camera, or when a bullet accidentally hits a TV screen and kills the actor in the movie that's on the screen at the time. Or when Nefron gets on the cheapest flight he can afford, and the interior of the plane has farm animals running around. Such gags as these weren't that particularly funny when we first saw them, and it's just tiresome to have our time wasted by seeing them yet again. It's also a little insulting to our intelligence, the fact that Lewis thought we would embrace this old humor.

Then there are some gags that, though they might have one or two familiar elements in them, might have been successfully pulled off, but their execution is botched for one reason or another. The opening sequence starts off seriously, then shows us a visual gag (with the opening of a suitcase) that juxtaposes with the mood and might have made us laugh - had Lewis not had "funny" music suddenly blurt out during the suitcase's opening, as if we had to be told that this revelation was funny. A more common reason why most of the potentially funny sequences fail comes from their timing. Some of the gags are either stretched out to run far longer than they should so that we have long guessed the punchline before it occurs, such as that scene where Lewis is playing the guru. His character claims to the surgeon he doesn't need anesthetic, making a big deal that his meditation can prepare him (leading to chanting that's the expected and typical Jerry Lewis gibberish), though when the surgeon makes the first cut.... well, you already guessed what happened as soon as you read about the guru claiming he didn't need anesthetic. Other times, a gag is beaten to death by it being repeated again and again until we can't even remember if it was even funny the first time. Take the restaurant scene, when Nefron is read a wide range of choices for his appetizer, drink, main course, etc by a slow-talking monotone waitress. Though not entirely original, it starts off sort of amusing, but Lewis doesn't realize when enough is enough, repeating Nefron given an endless choice of something far beyond our patience.

Some other gags are botched not because of wrong timing, but because of staggeringly incompetent direction and editing. Take the sequence where Nefron Lewis knew he had reached a low when others gave him autographstells his psychiatrist out of the blue that he's afraid of heights, and the psychiatrist decides to take him to the top of a tall building so he can directly confront his fears. As Nefron is struggling not to panic while looking down from the guardrail, in the background we can see something entering the picture, apparently grab the psychiatrist, and drag him off the screen. Then we suddenly cut back to the psychiatrist's office, where we see the doctor wrapped in bandages, moaning out loud, "I still don't know what happened." And the issue of just what happened to him is dropped and never referred to again. Upon my  replaying the sequence again in slow motion, and considering the setting, it looks as if the psychiatrist was grabbed by a big gorilla paw in what possibly might have originally been a spoof of King Kong. But without such close examination and guesswork, the sequence makes no sense at all. All it suggest instead, along with curious sequences like when Nefron is suddenly seen with one of the legs of his pants torn off, is that there were some real problems in the editing room. The evidence for this is further suggested during the closing credits, when we get to see not only bloopers, but lengthy sequences that never made the final cut.

Though pretty much all of the blame for the failure of Cracking Up falls on the shoulders of Lewis, at the same time he manages to bring the little that's praiseworthy of it. Though in his mid-50s when he made this movie, he shows to be still surprisingly limber, and his gusto for physical comedy does manage to generate a few laughs, such as when he tries to hang himself in the opening sequence. Also, when he dons makeup to play other characters like the guru and the southern sheriff, he actually disappears in these roles quite well. Upon seeing and hearing him in each of his alternate guises, it actually took me several seconds to be absolutely sure it was Lewis in that particular getup each time. It manages to show that the older Jerry Lewis still does have talent, but that he's no longer the one that should be given the task of showcasing his talent. If Lewis is to ever return to the silver screen, he should take note that his most recent successes (The King Of Comedy, the Broadway hit Damn Yankees) have been because of the direct influence of others - people of generations more recent than his own.

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See also: Evil Roy Slade, The Gong Show Movie, Outtakes