Wouldn’t it be nice if every aging star could be feted with a TV special for posterity, replete with tributes from those who followed? Yet Encore’s “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” plays more like a belated valentine than an examination of the comic’s career, one that expunges any of his missteps. Moreover, at nearly two hours, filmmaker Gregg Barson overstays his welcome, despite a laundry list of comics and performers — from Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy to the head-scratching inclusion of Woody Harrelson and Alec Baldwin — telling us why if we’re not huge Lewis fans, we should be.
Beyond the obligatory vintage clips from Lewis’ films and stage appearances, Barson spends a lot of time interviewing the octogenarian, intercut with footage from a recent live concert in front of an adoring crowd.
For his part, Lewis keeps reminiscing about how astonishingly popular he was, so much so that Paramount essentially gave him the keys to the kingdom. And for those who don’t fully appreciate Lewis as a comic genius on par with other great cinematic clowns, there’s a steady tide of testimonials, with Seinfeld saying, “It’s hard to be silly” and, “There is no low-brow in comedy.”
Even allowing the point and taking the star and his admirers at their word, it’s hard not to feel like Barson’s worshipful take (with Lewis serving as an exec producer) represents something of a whitewash. For starters, there’s no mention of Lewis’ role in the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon — which for many came to define him as the epitome of Hollywood kitsch — or conspicuous misfires like “The Day the Clown Cried,” the star’s notorious unreleased film about a clown entertaining children in a German death camp.
The film’s best aspect focuses on Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin, including their surprise reunion during a Frank Sinatra special. Lewis still speaks of Martin in reverent tones and says the two “had a ball” together for a decade. By contrast, the material on Lewis’ early life and training in vaudeville feels nearly as thin as his overlooked failures.
For genuine Lewis fans, this is nevertheless an important document commemorating his lengthy career. But Barson has made a doc too narrow in scope, with about as much substance as a meringue pie in the face.
Seinfeld refers to Lewis a “diamond of comedy.” As documentaries go, “Method to the Madness” is strictly a rhinestone.