It’s been a really long time since I watched this movie; I remembered liking it. It is, I think, a really troubling movie. It clearly has a lot on its mind; no, I’m not being sarcastic. It genuinely is a compelling, interesting look at the idea of personas and, specifically, the poisonous nature of the ‘cool guy’ persona. Lewis is actually extremely good in the Buddy Love sections of the film; he’s repellent and unlikable as the arrogant, suave Love in just the right way. He’s ultimately a really cruel person; there’s a genuinely painful scene where Love takes pleasure in absolutely humiliating the pompous college dean, played by an excellent Del Moore. It seems that in the transition from the nerdy professor Kelp, the character gains self-confidence, swagger, cool and charm, but loses entirely the one good thing about Kelp: his kindness. As the film progresses, Love becomes more and more interesting and disturbing. A scene in which he’s drunk, and the worst kind of drunk, a mean, nasty one, is probably the best in the film. He doesn’t slap Stella Stevens in the scene, but there’s a genuinely surprising moment where you really think he’s going to. And so the film begins to also be a sort of parable about substance abuse; what is Kelp really doing, after all, but using chemicals to induce an artificial personality change? And we see that every day of the week, don’t we?
So am I arguing for this as some sort of masterpiece? Well, no, the movie is too deeply flawed for that. The film has long stretches that are really pretty awful. Much of the comedy is just painfully stupid. Of course, it’s Jerry Lewis, right? But a dreadful sequence where Kelp begins working out in a gym just jars horribly with some of the more dramatic, thought-provoking sequences. And much of the humor functions this way, though there are occasional laughs to be found, most especially when the typically reserved Kelp quietly dances at a school prom while he thinks no one is watching. So the film is divided between sequences that just make me grit my teeth and cringe and scenes that seem genuinely interesting and thought-provoking and even emotionally resonant. The climax of the film, no spoilers, is one of the latter, thankfully; the speech Lewis gives is certainly on the nose, but it also feels sincerely heartfelt and I couldn’t help but get a bit of a lump in my throat.
I waffled around and around on this one. I felt that I couldn’t rate it below three stars; there’s simply too much good stuff here. But there’s also so much bad that a four star rating is absolutely impossible. But I couldn’t decide between a Good and a Very Good ranking. Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to the recommendation. A good rating translates as a “conditionally recommended,” while a very good translates as “recommended.” And ultimately, for all the movie’s cringe-inducing scenes, it’s a film that I really do think everyone should see. The interesting exploration of personas, the dissection of “cool,” and Lewis’ bravura performance as Love really demand it. So, yeah, I’m calling it a very good movie. Recommended. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – much of the “humor” is painfully unfunny, but the film is surprisingly thoughtful and Lewis is surprisingly brilliant as the story explores the way we use personas and the poisonous nature of the search to be “cool.” 3 ½ stars.