Woody and Jerry: A look at two geniuses

November 19, 2011

Timing, of course, is everything. So it’s interesting that, in the space of a couple of weeks, we’ll be seeing documentaries about two of the major comic geniuses of the last half of the 20th century.

Sunday (11/20/11) and Monday (11/21/11), PBS’s “American Masters” series will broadcast “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” an all-encompassing look at the life and career of the filmmaker, still-thriving at 75.

And then, on Dec. 17, the Encore network will air “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis,” a career retrospective of the 85-year-old comic dynamo.

If you look at comedy in the 20th century, the list of those whose work has depth, breadth and longevity is a small one: Charlie Chaplin, Lewis, Allen. Each broke the mold, charted the path, set the standard and maintained the quality over a long period of time.

It’s particularly startling in “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” when you realize that Allen has made a movie a year since 1969. It’s an astonishing output, made all the more amazing when you consider how few duds there are among the 40 theatrical features he has written and directed, beginning with “Take the Money and Run.”

Director Robert Weide, a producer-director on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” gets Allen to sit and talk: about his childhood, his early years in stand-up comedy, his approach to film-making, even (to a limited extent) his headline-making breakup with Mia Farrow and involvement with Soon-Yi Previn. (Allen observes that he didn’t think he was famous enough to attract that kind of media frenzy.)

Weide also talks to Allen’s sister/producer Letty Aronson and his various collaborators – from writers Marshall Brickman, Doug McGrath and Mickey Rose to casting director Juliet Taylor and cinematographer Gordon Willis. And, of course, we hear from his stars: everyone from Louise Lasser to Diane Keaton, from Tony Roberts and Diane Wiest to Larry David and Scarlett Johannson.

But what’s amazing is the sheer breadth of the work that Allen has done. He’s created a filmography that’s heavy on titles that can rightly be considered classics and very light on out-and-out duds. Even the films that don’t work (including failed comedies like “Anything Else” and serious films like “Another Woman”) show Allen stretching and testing himself. While he has a style, he’s not repetitive or safe. Even minor films (“Celebrity,” “Hollywood Ending”) offer major laughs and surprising insight.

More to the point, he’s still capable of finding new ways of expressing himself and reaching an audience with comedy and drama that’s hard to resist. Look at his output of the last 10 years, a period when he’s made “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris” and eight other films.

Those three films alone would be enough to vault most directors into the stratosphere; for Woody Allen, it’s business as usual, even as he deals with critics who feel he’s lost his touch, makes too many movies or that, as I’ve heard some critics say, they’re simply “over” him. “Woody Allen: A Documentary” shows a man still questing, working – and achieving (though his intensely self-critical nature keeps him from truly enjoying the output).

Gregg Barson’s “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” is similarly fascinating, in a very different way. Lewis is now 85 and still going strong – and, apparently, still strong-willed enough to maintain control over a documentary on his life. This film is hagiography, to be sure; there’s not a critical word uttered about Lewis as a person, an artist or a businessman.

Failure is a word that is never mentioned. We see nothing of his short-lived, but wildly manic TV talk show of the late 1960s, or his much-discussed but never-seen film, “The Day the Clown Cried,” just to mention a couple of lower moments of his career. There is no talk of his personal life, except as he mentions it; while we hear from some of his children, we don’t hear from all of them (I personally missed hearing from son Gary, a rock star in the 1960s, just for curiosity’s sake).

There is also no mention of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon per se, though there is a clip of the 1976 reunion of Lewis with Dean Martin. There’s nothing about Lewis’ struggle with chronic pain. There’s not even a clip of him receiving a special Oscar (though he wields it and talks about it in the film).

What you get is tribute, well-deserved, to be sure. A host of witnesses – everyone from Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg – testify to Lewis’ influence and skills as legendary and long-lasting. Lewis himself – whether talking to the camera or filmed in concert (yes, he still performs live at 85) – is as vibrant and engaging as ever.

And the film clips bear this out: Scenes from “The Bellboy,” “The Patsy,” “The Ladies’ Man” and “The Nutty Professor” show Lewis’ inventive, relentless style, his restless energy as a performer and his sure-handed touch as a director of comedy. His humor still works and, hopefully, this documentary will introduce him to a generation – or two or three – that came along after Lewis’ heyday as a box-office draw.

It’s hard to think of two comic masterminds more different than Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis, yet they share a common devotion to silliness – to smart silliness – that is impossible to ignore. These two documentaries are more than just nostalgia; they are a rightful celebration of talent that remains timeless.

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