The privacy with which Dean Martin wanted to live his life earns some respect in CBS’ biopic of his early days partnered with comic Jerry Lewis: There’s just no getting under this man’s skin. Martin’s cool demeanor and mysteriousness is the yin to Lewis’ let-it-all-hang-out yang, a fact that when simplified makes the Martin-Lewis story that easy for director-scribe John Gray to tell and Sean Hayes and Jeremy Northam to portray. “Martin and Lewis” is the chronology of a festering difference of opinion — who needs whom more — that took years to play out. This version spells it out heavy on the sex and singing for Martin (Northam) and guilt and lack of parental acceptance for Lewis (Hayes). Its focus on somewhat hypothesized intimate moments means avoiding any sense of why this duo clicked with American audiences on stage, TV and film, yet by making this an embellished two-hander, Gray delivers a consistently interesting telepic.
In this relationship, Lewis is the giver. It’s Jerry who comes up with the idea of a duo, who thrills at the laughs generated by his improvisation at an Atlantic City club in 1946. Lewis is also the one who cries in the arms of wife Patti (Sarah Manninen) and who dies inside every time his father, Danny (Steve Brinder), an Al Jolson-style singing vaudevillian, refuses to acknowledge his comedic gifts.
There’s an elasticity to Lewis in his early years — right up through his ’60s movies — that Hayes doesn’t possess. While that’s certainly telling in terms of Lewis’ uniqueness, it ultimately is of little consequence as the story focuses on the duo’s selfish and stubborn ways.
Both men have childish streaks: Thin-skinned Lewis pouts, conjures illnesses to get attention and goes to great lengths to get laughs regardless of whom he offends. Martin’s more likely to take his ball and go home — or to a hotel room with a woman who won’t bring up sore subjects such as kids and marriage.
Telepic starts in 1943 with the two as single acts, supplying few, if any, hints as to how they arrived onstage at dives in Manhattan and Buffalo. Lewis’ act, zany for its time, isn’t all that different from Andy Kaufman’s play-along-to-records shtick 30 years later, while Martin was a Crosby-esque crooner several notches below Sinatra.
The two went together like their personalities — slapstick vs. serious — and they take the nightclub world by storm. Off stage, Lewis is the conscientious family man while Dean’s womanizing is hardly a secret — even to first wife Betty (Paula Cale). Problems arise when his attraction to Jeanne (Kate Levering), whom he meets in Miami in ’48, develops beyond the sexual and he ends up leading two, make that three, separate lives. The Dean-and-Betty break-up scene plays like a primer for scribes on how to get out all of the emotional facts in a screaming match.
The more ensconced the two become in Hollywood — this is told by having movie posters flash quickly across the screen — the more they come to despise each other. Final curtain is on the set of “Three Ring Circus” in Phoenix in 1954 as Lewis has come to dominate their movies together; a year later, they do their final performance at Gotham’s Copacabana.
“Martin and Lewis” is a steady, professional job. It won’t knock anyone’s socks off, and it won’t send viewers reeling. Northam (“Gosford Park”) more closely resembles Rock Hudson than Martin, but as the pic rolls along, his hard edge develops a hearty bite that helps flesh out his character. Hayes, “Will & Grace’s” Jack, will pull in viewers who relish his mugging on the hit NBC sitcom; Lewis role allows him to expand his range while keeping it tethered to a style he already knows well.
Gray’s direction is assured, and opening scenes in two dressing rooms give the telepic an encouraging intro. For once, a biopic is not told in flashback or with voiceover.
Facts for the telepic come from a book by Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, whose biographies on Hollywood royalty have earned kudos for factual faithfulness. Ricci Martin, who wrote his own Dino tome to counter the accepted vision of this man as cold and unemotional, served as a consultant on the telepic. Fortunately, there don’t appear to be familial influences ushering this story one way or the other.
Northam lipsynchs reasonably well to Martin recordings. Drum intro to Benny Goodman and Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing” is overused, leaving only the treacly emotional spots for Ernest Troost to score.
Pic displays a few curious touches throughout. Slow-motion photography is used, but to no great effect. Nearly every club’s interior looks the same — save for the furniture. And certainly the dialogue coach could have given Northam a bit more of an Italian touch; he even says “comprende” instead of “capito.” C’mon.
Fake Variety front pages from early 1950s are accurately re-created.