Jerry Lewis, star of the newly released Max Rose, is one of the most divisive film comedians of all time. A large percentage of movie fans who remember Lewis absolutely loathe him. To them, he’s a marginally talented clown whose chief claim to fame is having raised irritation to an art form. Lewis’ signature roles alongside Dean Martin in the Fifties, filled with infantile gags delivered in his distinctive high-pitched bray, nauseate his detractors. They are happy that prior to Max Rose, Lewis had not made a big-screen movie since 1995 (his voice work for Curious George and The Simpsons evidently doesn’t count).
On the other hand, Lewis’ admirers revel in his absurdity. The nitwit antics in My Friend Irma or The Stooge, the harebrained parodies of pop culture in the films he and Martin made with Frank Tashlin (Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models), the dizzying slapstick ziggurats of The Disorderly Orderly — these are the moments Lewis’ fans wait for. The entire country of France seems to idolize him, a phenomenon that only infuriates doubters all the more, even when Jean-Luc Godard left-handedly praised Lewis’ work as “an acme of stupidity.” To Lewis’ adherents he’s a genuine misunderstood genius, the poor man’s Orson Welles, a New Jersey Charlie Chaplin unafraid of letting his loud, obnoxious klutz persona run free and untamed.
Of course Max Rose is maudlin. What did we expect? The title character, an octogenarian former jazz pianist living alone and bitterly mourning his recently deceased wife (played in flashback by Claire Bloom), has reason to believe that she was cheating on him, and it’s driving him crazy. Max’s fed-up son (Kevin Pollak) and indulgent granddaughter (sweet-faced Kerry Bishé) sympathize, to a degree, but the old man is in a serious downward spiral. We’ve seen Lewis play a pissed-off character in a bizarre scenario before, in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Director Daniel Noah’s screenplay is nowhere near that subtle. It tries in vain to conform to the textures of similar senior citizen dramas, but the writing is just too weak. It starts in the key of distress, then downshifts into something more miserable, the utmost in passive-aggressive. It is brutal in its inoffensiveness. Even the soundtrack music, a sappy piano melody by the usually reliable Michel Legrand, is nothing more than oatmeal for the ears. Max’s story should have been disruptive. That’s certainly more in the spirit of Lewis.
The best scene in the movie is when Max gets together with his buddies, played by comedian Mort Sahl and actors Lee Weaver and Rance Howard, to drunkenly pantomime a big-band jazz tune. We can almost picture the younger Jerry scampering up and down the set of The Nutty Professor, his best film. Better to catch that deliriously inventive “self-portrait” once again than to sit still for limp, overextended scenes of people trying to humor Max, a man destined for a monumentally corny ending. Max Rose premiered at Cannes in May, 2013, and is just now showing up in theaters here. Jerry Lewis deserves a better homage than this.