Screened August 7 2009 on Paramount DVD in New York , NY
Maybe it’s only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar… and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man’s-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it’s less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis’ klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.
But unlike the Coyote’s Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It’s a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis’ playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis’ legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn’t hurtling towards manhood; it’s actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.
That said, there’s plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I’ve dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it’s the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis “never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out,” he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn’t entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.
Now, four decades later, Lewis’ filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn’t mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form – though it’s not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his “bunk” bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed “total filmmaker,” by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.
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