To the uninitiated, it might sound perverse to say that a remake of a Jerry Lewis movie lacks the subtlety and intricacy of the original. But Lewis' The Nutty Professor holds up as an eccentric classic (as San Franciscans can see for themselves when it screens at the Castro on Friday, July 19, with an in-person tribute to Lewis' co-star, Stella Stevens). Even in the role of the bucktoothed, bespectacled professor (whom he called Julius Kelp), Lewis rechannels his antic nature in surprising ways. The good-hearted intellectual is so clumsy and insecure that he becomes an energy vampire, while his secret identity, Buddy Love, an amateur Rat Packer, is such a full-throttled narcissist that he charges everybody up. The juxtaposition of the slap-happy nebbish and the suave hipster mirrors the 10-year team-up of Lewis with Dean Martin. What's fascinating and creepy about the first The Nutty Professor is that Buddy Love is also a nightmare projection of the worst aspects of Lewis himself. If the professor was a variation on the lovable noodniks Lewis had embodied in the past, Love echoed (to quote Lewis biographer Shawn Levy) "the loud, arrogant, abrasive, abusive, and conceited" figure Lewis struck on talk shows and in the press. Though both versions of The Nutty Professor close with a be-yourself message, Lewis' has the guts to indicate that there is something life-enhancing about Buddy Love as a priapic paragon of cool -- at the end, Stella Stevens' character stashes Kelp's potion in her pockets. Erotic, sharp, and unsentimental: That's our Jerry Lewis.
The irony of Murphy's The Nutty Professor is that it's singularly opaque when it focuses on Murphy-as-hipster, and blissfully revealing when it focuses on Murphy-as-Klump, who's as much a creature of "family fun" as Bill Cosby's Fat Albert. It may be that inside Murphy, that rabid master of comedy-club "whoosh," there's always been a kids' star struggling to come out.
In Phenomenon, the reigning comeback kid, John Travolta, also comments -- disastrously -- on his image. In films from Saturday Night Fever and Blow Out to Get Shorty Travolta has displayed tremendous instinctual intelligence, but in Urban Cowboy and Perfect and this movie, his presence is so blank it's worrisome. Back in 1983, when asked if he thought he was smart, Travolta replied, "Yes. Bottom line. I don't know if that's an appropriate thing to admit to, but I do. Now, that's different from being well-read and having a wide vocabulary, though both those things are easily handled -- just pick up some books and read a dictionary." (In the same interview, he remarked, "If I am androgynous, I'd say I lean toward the macho androgynous.")
In Phenomenon he acts out his book-reading scenario as his character devours the contents of an entire library in a small Northern California town. He's a simple garage mechanic, George Malley, whose brain becomes activated beyond genius level when, on his 37th birthday, he witnesses a celestial light (or so he thinks). Suddenly he's able to analyze real-life problems with crystal clarity, like how a rabbit infiltrated his lettuce garden (he fenced it in when he thought he was fencing it out), and before long he's cracking a government security code, coming up with a super fertilizer recipe so his best friend, Nate, can grow corn, and predicting earthquakes. Director Jon Turteltaub and writer Gerald DiPego may think they're saluting humanity's cerebral potential, but their comedy-drama does the opposite: It depicts common folk as being paranoid about above-average intelligence, and proposes that even the most altruistic and good-hearted nonconformist can rend the fabric of a close-knit hamlet. Of the mechanic's buddies, only the town doctor, "Doc" (Robert Duvall), never wavers in his faith, no matter how upset he is that Travolta can now beat him at chess; George's pal Nate (Forest Whitaker) and his budding true love, Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) -- the screenwriter may respect polysyllabic concepts, but he adores one-syllable names -- are temporarily put off by George's brilliance. (Forget about macho androgyny: This movie celebrates abstinence. George and Lace don't kiss until way into the third act.)
There is something nerve-racking about the way DiPego writes and Travolta embodies this man. At the beginning, as regular George, he's so placid and non-mental that his unself-conscious amble proclaims ordinariness: It's as if his body moves without neurons. When he's transformed, he ambulates -- well, not all that differently. What he does is segue to a supposedly higher plane of simplicity: He sees through complications in a snap. Maybe that's why the advance blurbs invoke Forrest Gump. Or maybe we're positioned to feel as if we're the Gumps, and that if you don't have Mama around to compare life to a box of chocolates, you should seek out someone like the newly curious George. A fraudulent coda shows that the townspeople absorb George's wisdom and learn to revere him -- after he's gone. Phenomenon, like Nate, uses souped-up fertilizer to grow the same old corn.
The truly daring star performance of the week belongs to Alain Delon in Rene Clement's Purple Noon, the lush 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley that's been out of circulation for decades. (The movie opens commercially in San Francisco July 3 and has an East Bay benefit preview on July 10 at the Pacific Film Archive.) Delon tears into the central role: a clever, affable sociopath named Tom Ripley. He's been hired to persuade a shipping magnate's son, named Phil Greenleaf in the movie, to leave an Italian seaside village and go home to the U.S. But Tom finds he'd rather absorb the identity of this heir to a fortune than be the agent of his return. The plot is the same in the book and in the movie, but the emotional pitch is more high-strung, the texture gaudier on-screen. Highsmith's Tom is in a state of homosexual denial. Delon's Tom is a flamboyant bisexual. (In the book, Phil's hometown is New York; in the movie, it's San Francisco.) For the first half-hour, Tom and Phil (the urbane, malevolent Maurice Ronet) enact a series of polymorphously perverse, emotionally sadistic games that make the ensuing betrayals and murders seem satisfying and inevitable.
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