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The Big Mouth

Film Review by Jun 10, 2015

I have ancient memories of this film’s opening sequence, a half squeamish, half empathetic feeling for the guy who gets hooked, right in the mouth. Ouch! It’s really interesting to return as a big person, to fill in the gaps. What do we find? Well practically, or industrially speaking, you can kind of see that Jerry Lewis’s great 1960s run is ending. Quoting yourself is one thing, but this third appearance of a Julius Kelp/Uncle Julius character starts to look like self-cannibalization. The practices of TV movie production are starting to infiltrate overly. Plus some of the old sins—like his stupendously cloying romances—are still in evidence, and our patience is running out. But those things aren’t the whole of it, and in some ways they’re the least of it. What are you going to do? This guy is funny!

The gangsters certainly care, but the film itself doesn’t seem to be very concerned about those diamonds. Comic routines are the prime concern, and the careful distribution of almost contrapuntal lines of conflict between the main character, the bad guys, and the hostile hotel staff. (This has always been the case with Lewis. In some ways he’s basically a structuralist.) But while attending to this balance the comic routines do combine to say something more. No one believes anyone, or no one will listen to anyone, or no one can be relied on (cf. the fake FBI guy). And that’s not even including the fact that everyone is trying to kill you. This is more than just comic frustration, but rather a more thoroughgoing exploration of futility, which can lead to anxiety, and then to paranoia, and then to insanity.

Consider, for example, the seemingly excessive reaction of Harold Stone’s henchmen to the continually resurgent Syd Valentine (the original guy on the beach who—surprise, surprise—looks just like Jerry). Paul Lambert turns into a dog, Buddy Lester starts speaking in tongues, and Charlie Callas literally decomposes. Each response is really funny, and each one evolves and is integrated very nicely within the bigger plan. But if you want to look at it from a different angle, this is actually terrifying stuff. That shot of Lewis emerging from the depths of the water—just after the shot of him with his legs super stretched out—manages to evoke, even create a kind of primordial menace. The resulting silence is suggestive of the one in R.L. Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, the one that follows that sure manifestation of the devil. With that in mind, Lester’s gibberish sounds positively infernal, and Callas seems to be undergoing a dissolution of Old Testament proportions. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”  (Psalm 22.) Plus which, these gangsters, comic and Vegas-y though they may be, really do hint at the ethnic/tribal savagery to which Mr. Scorcese would subsequently dedicate his career. Had you wondered why he cast Lewis in The King of Comedy? Depths and resonances!

Also, the slow motion shots at the conclusion of the tennis lesson are truly some of the very funniest images in film history. The device/mannerism most frequently assigned to the portrayal of heroism and physical grace is utilized here for the cruel isolation of utter physical ineptitude. (Note the superb sound effects.) Or that would seem to be the case, if it weren’t for that one Stan and Ollie thing. Look carefully. Their ineptitude, and Lewis’s too, here, ends up being so paradoxically graceful, especially as it considers and gathers all the feeble kneed masses who relate, who are. Lewis steps on the net, which launches him, implausibly and impossibly, into the stratosphere. And what the hell? A wind machine! Ridiculous. Sheer genius.

I’m afraid I must say that I love the Kabuki bit. Why do it for thirty seconds when you can do it for a whole three minutes? This is another great example of a central Lewis trope, something that he also partly got from Stan Laurel (not to mention Chaplin himself). Duration allows you to explore, exhaust the comic potential of your idea. It’s themes and variations, and outside of comedy’s knockabout settings, there’s a wonderfully rational, Enlightened aspect to the method. Duration, plied thusly, also bespeaks deeper anxieties, a more dire Absurdity. Lewis, like Laurel, was a popular performer who sought to entertain. But the French are absolutely right, as it turns out. Lewis, like Laurel, is a modernist of the first order. And an anxious modernist at that.

With regard to those three minutes, and the earlier observation that Lewis is partly a structuralist, or perhaps an architect, get a load of his exploration of space and trajectory as they chase through Sea World. It’s practically comprehensive, and quite awesome too.

Remember my ancient and troubled memories, described way back in the first paragraph? In the end, as in the beginning: the Syd character comes back at the end, initiating, at least suggesting a new round of comical elaboration, and infernal angst. Comedy, and dire conflict, are eternal.