Martin and Lewis

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 makes this story easy for director-scribe John Gray to tell.

Jerry Lewis - Sean Hayes Dean Martin - Jeremy Northam Betty Martin - Paula Cale Patti Lewis - Sarah Manninen Jeanne Martin - Kate Levering Abby Greshler - Scott McCord Danny Lewis - Steve Brinder Rae Lewis - Rhona Shekter Lou Perry - Conrad Dunn Hal Wallis - Bill Lake Lew Wasserman - David Eisner

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.

Martin and Lewis

CBS; Sun., Nov. 24; 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Toronto by Storyline Entertainment and St. Amos Prods. in association with Sony Pictures Television. Executive producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, John Stamos, Mark Sennet; producer, Mark Winemaker; director, John Gray; writer, Gray, based on the book "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself)" by Arthur Marx.

Crew: Camera, Derick V. Underschultz; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; editor, Keith Reamer; music, Ernest Troost; casting, Phyllis Huffman, Olivia Harris. 120 MIN.

Cast: Jerry Lewis - Sean Hayes Dean Martin - Jeremy Northam Betty Martin - Paula Cale Patti Lewis - Sarah Manninen Jeanne Martin - Kate Levering Abby Greshler - Scott McCord Danny Lewis - Steve Brinder Rae Lewis - Rhona Shekter Lou Perry - Conrad Dunn Hal Wallis - Bill Lake Lew Wasserman - David EisnerWith: Tony Nappo, Aron Tager, Robert Morelli, Markus Parilo, Bruce Gooch, Craig Eldridge.

More TV

  • 'Fleabag' Season 2 Review: How Its

    'Fleabag': Season 2’s Top 10 Breaks From Reality, Ranked (Column)

    The searing first season of “Fleabag” felt like a complete story in and of itself. As adapted from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show, the series expanded on the world of a woman wild with lust and grief with such expert ease that by the time it ended, even Waller-Bridge herself was sure that it was the [...]

  • Richard Madden Says 'Game of Thrones'

    Richard Madden Says the 'Game of Thrones' Cast Deserves a Medal

    Richard Madden is thankful for his time on “Game of Thrones,” but is also happy to have been able to move on when he did. The “Bodyguard” star sat down with “Sharper Objects'” Amy Adams for Variety’s Actors on Actors, where he expressed some incredulity at the idea of spending so long with just one [...]

  • MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r)

    Submissions Now Welcome for Third 'Meet the Press' Film Festival

    Chuck Todd’s quest to bring “Meet the Press” to the movies continues. The third annual Meet the Press Film Festival, held in collaboration with the American Film Institute, will take place on October 6 and 7 in Washington, D.C., and remains a haven for issue-focused documentary shorts. Todd believes the event serves a critical mission: [...]

  • Winner of the 2019 Eurovision Song

    Netherlands' Duncan Laurence Wins 2019 Eurovision Song Contest

    Madonna’s controversial performance may have grabbed the headlines, but Duncan Laurence won the nearly four-hour-long 2019 Eurovision Song Contest for the Netherlands with the song “Arcade,” which he cowrote with Joel Sjöö and Wouter Hardy. Laurence won a total of 492 points from the expert juries and televoters in a contest that was touch and [...]

  • 'SNL' Cold Open Has Alec Baldwin's

    'SNL' Cold Open Has Alec Baldwin's Trump Rocking Out to Queen

    The cold open for the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” saw the Trump administration taking some liberties with a rock classic. Alec Baldwin returned as President Donald Trump, letting America know that he is going to be taking it easy now that summer is nearly here. He then said he was going to do [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content