April 21, 2007

The Nutty Professor (1963)
Grade: 47/100

Director: Jerry Lewis
Stars: Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens, Del Moore

What it's about. Dorky college professor Klump (Jerry Lewis) concocts a formula that will make him a swinging lounge lizard, at least for a few hours before a return to form. His nightclub shenanigans fascinate his girlfriend, blank-faced beauty Stella Stevens. How long can Lewis keep up his double life? And will Stella ever get wise?

How others will see it. This feature, of course, was remade as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, which is better known because it is better, both as a comedy and as cinematic art. The Jerry Lewis version suffers by comparison, but the moral is the same: be who you are, even if you're a dork.

How I felt about it. The moral will probably make viewers roll their eyes. Poised beauty Stella Stevens, in love with geeky Lewis? No one's mothering instinct is that strong. Anyway, in the year this review is written (2007) it is considered unethical for a college professor to romance one of his students. Perhaps 1963 was a more enlightened year after all.

Did young adults of 1963 (much less today) think Lewis' alter ego, Buddy Love, was hip? As a nightclub performer with traditional jazz backing, he's like Frank Sinatra without the pipes. His overweening confidence might well fascinate, however, especially if the lady in question likes his true personality (for whatever reason.)

But is it funny? Actually, almost never, and that's giving the film the benefit of the doubt. About the best we get is witty dubbed lines from a parrot, who is the true medical marvel of the movie. It can't compete, for example, with Murphy's stand-up comic heckling or his dinner table costume changes.

This brings us to the flaws of Lewis' The Nutty Professor. The Eddie Murphy remake improved the original in two major ways, giving us the rare opportunity to learn how to fix a mediocre film in practice rather than just theory. Murphy's Klump has an inferiority complex, just like Lewis, but it's because he's fat, rather than dorky. His character is much more sympathetic, since we all know that prejudice against fat people is endemic. Dorks, like Lewis, are less credible.

Murphy's alter ego has a healthy dose of "dark side" about him, increasing the distinction between the "good" professor and the "evil" nightclub personality. Thus, the remake demonstrated that the two major characters in the original film, Klump and his alter ego Buddy Love, were incorrectly sculpted. Lewis gets the blame, since he is after all the director and co-writer as well as the star.

Now if only Murphy had addressed the other major flaw in the story, the love interest angle with the wide-eyed heart-of-gold college student beauty. No one really believes he can win the perfect woman as Klump instead of as Love.