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Under the Radar DVD of the Week: 'Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis'

Dennis King Published: January 21, 2013

This week, the oddest DVD on release lists is:

“Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis”

A running show-business joke for many decades has honed in on the French regard for Jerry Lewis as a comic genius, while in America the manic comedian’s star has been somewhat tarnished. Oh, those wacky French and their strange tastes!

But now there’s a documentary – bolstered by glowing endorsements from such luminaries as Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, Alec Baldwin, Carol Burnett and others – that seeks to place Lewis, as writer, director and actor, back among the greats of screen comedy. “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” (due out on DVD Tuesday) originally aired on cable TV and comes across as a slick PR effort to polish Lewis’ legend.

Although in recent years Lewis, now well into his 80s and enduring health problems, has fallen into mawkish caricature (due, ironically, to his admirable work on the annual MDA telethons) and suffered from a number of embarrassing slips of the tongue (such as a gay slur during the 2007 telethon). Additionally, his antic, pratfall-heavy style of comedy (most notable in “The Bellboy” and the original “Nutty Professor”) has largely fallen out of favor.

Director Gregg Barson, maker of “Goodnight, We Love You,” a 2004 Phyllis Diller documentary, uses a very light hand in exploring Lewis’ career (there’s nary a wart revealed in this portrait) and instead builds a steady case through endorsements and testimonials from various celebrities that Lewis deserves a place among the pioneer greats.

Talking-head sequences by Spielberg (crediting Lewis with keeping silent-film comedy traditions alive), by Richard Belzer (defining Lewis’ rock star appeal in post-WWII) and by Quentin Tarantino (drawing an aesthetic line from Buster Keaton to Lewis) are among the most informative. And the brief look at Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin (their team ended in 1956) is especially fruitful.

“Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis” – essentially a valentine to the great if flawed comedian – is not rated and runs 116 minutes. It’s being released by Anchor Bay.

- Dennis King