Monday, December 23, 2013

Lenny - 1974

"Lenny" - 1974
Dir. by Bob Fosse - 1 hr. 51 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

At this point in time, Lenny Bruce might not be a household name.  And among those who have heard of him, it's much more likely that they've heard of him, but are not familiar with his work.  I don't know that "Lenny" is the sort of thing that would shed a ton of light on exactly why he was infamous in his time, although it is a straightforward bio of Bruce.  "Lenny" was released eight years after Bruce's death, so at that point, explaining why he was of importance was less important that getting into who he was and where he came from.

Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) was a cabaret comedian, and not a particularly good one.  Before his stand-up took off, he fell in love with a stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine), and married her quickly.  Trying to get her out of stripping, he concocted a double act with her that had her singing instead, but it didn't take off either, and they both had to fall back on what they knew.  And somewhere along the way, they both started using heroin, which would dog the both of them, although not usually at the same time.  As their marriage fell apart, Lenny started pursuing a more ragged, free-flowing, and yes, obscene stand-up act that gained him a lot of notoriety, a vastly improved cash-flow, and the attention of the law.  Lenny was repeatedly arrested on obscenity charges (largely over language), and sometimes on narcotics charges, and the combination dragged him down, until he met his premature end.

Mimicking comedy is very difficult to do well.  There's so much that's intensely personal and unique about each performer that even if you get the timing right (which is the ultimate challenge), and the words right, it can still not be entirely funny coming out of the wrong mouth.  It's one of the reasons I suspect that we rarely see films about comedians; even hitting the target can be damned near impossible. Think about someone attempting to do a film about John Belushi, Chris Farley, or Mitch Hedberg (and doing one of those now isn't even as close on the heels of their deaths as "Lenny" was on Bruce's), and how easily it could turn into a a bad cover-version rendition of their comedic greatest hits.  I'm not sure which films Dustin Hoffman made his reputation as an actor on, but this has to be one of them.  It's certainly in his hottest period, and this was a very challenging role, one that Hoffman nails as closely as one can.  Although "Lenny" is fairly deep in getting a psychiatric reading on him, the role requires Hoffman to behave without the same level of self-awareness or introspection as the film provides.  Probably the best compliment that I can pay is that there were times I forgot I was watching Dustin Hoffman, and was fully immersed in the film and what was happening.  A lot of credit has to go to Valerie Perrine, as well, and not just because she played a stripper and actually went through with what you'd expect of someone in that profession.  It felt like at least half of the film was hers, partially because there are interview reconstructions that run through the film, which let her character have her say, after everything was said and done.

One of the most striking things about "Lenny" is the use of sound.  There wasn't much of a soundtrack, just parts of Miles Davis songs used, but there are points in the film where extended periods of silence are used to enforce a sort of awkwardness and discomfort onto the crowd.  In one instance, Lenny talks Honey into a dope-fueled three-way, and instead of it being super sexy, it feels like the worst thing in the world.  I can't even imagine how brutal that scene would have felt in a theatre, with an audience; it was hard enough to watch at home.  An another scene, Lenny is in no condition to perform, but is trotted out on stage anyways over his mother's protests, high as a kite, wearing one shoe, no pants, and an overcoat.  After stumbling through some half-baked material, and losing control in front of the audience, he just stands there in front of the audience, microphone in hand, saying nothing to the silent crowd for what feels like forever and a day.  Considering Bruce's courtroom meltdown near the end of the film, where he begs for the judge not to take his words away, it feels like the use of sound (or the absence of sound) is representational of Bruce's state of mind.  His normal speech patterns are fast, rapid-fire, and energetic.  And as long as he's talking, as long as there's some chatter, things are okay.  But the silence, whether it's from drug use slowing down his mind, or being enforced by the police, that's the imprisonment that he can't stand.

This is a very good film.  In 1974, George Carlin was following down Bruce's comedic path, and getting in some trouble for it, so it was relevant to show people where that came from.  The approach to the material feels tragic; that's probably because a comedian who died at forty from drug abuse, partially because he was being worn into the ground by the constant threat of imprisonment and the guarantee of financial ruin, wasn't yet a cliche.  Losing Bruce was felt honestly, partially because he was one of the first to take comedy from strip clubs and into something that could stand on it's own, and be culturally relevant.  This movie, while not wallowing in his misery, doesn't shy away from showing the price he personally paid to do that, and what happens when people who have power over you don't understand (or just don't like) what you're doing.  "Lenny" isn't a happy-time movie, it's not going to give you warm fuzzies.  It's not entirely difficult viewing, and when it is, it's because of good filmmaking getting across the emotions.  I don't know if it's possible to watch "Lenny" now without having the ghosts of other comedians who died young in the same manner hanging over the proceedings, but it's to the film's credit that it's possible to forget momentarily.

4 / 5 - TV (HD)

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