Depending on who you ask, Jerry Lewis is either brilliant or just not all that funny. Loud, bombastic, and cloying, his brand of humor was perfectly suited for the time of its greatest popularity, but is hopelessly out of synch with our own. But Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis makes the case that his singularity comes from his exceptionalism rather than the tastes of any particular time period. If you happen to be one who isn't inclined find any of his work funny, Method brings enough authoritative opinion and documentary evidence to convince you that you’re wrong.
Like so many comedians of the 20th century, Lewis came from the vaudeville circuit, where his father was a headlining act. Desperate for approval any way that he could get it, Lewis developed an act of his own, born on the stage but well-suited to film where he had his greatest success. Method tracks his career largely from film-to-film, but also integrating his stage work and television appearances to create a fuller picture of him as a performer. Along the way, an impressive gallery of celebrities both comic (Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Carol Burnett) and otherwise (Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis) provide insight into his influence and innovations.
Even at two hours, Method feels like an old episode of Biography that has been largely spared the editor’s razor, so gluttonous is the number of celebrity appearances. Some of them do little more than fawn (Seinfeld produces the memorable quote that if you don’t understand Lewis, “you don’t understand comedy”), but others (especially Spielberg) are quite articulate in their appreciation of his invention. Most notable in this area is his technical mastery as a director (just wait until you get a look at the set for The Ladies Man), which stands out sharply from the low-fi sensibility that dominates modern comedy. You may not find Lewis funny (in which case you’d be in good company), but after Method to the Madness, it’s impossible not to admire him.
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"Method To The Madness Of Jerry Lewis" is on sale January 22, 2013 and is rated PG. Drama. Directed by Gregg Barson. Starring Alec Baldwin, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Lewis, Michael Andrew, John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Richard Belzer.