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Nerd. Milquetoast. Klutz. These are just three of the many undesirable words that can be used to describe Professor Julius Kelp. But all that changes when the chemistry expert invents a potion that transforms him into a suave, sexy chick magnet, whom Julius aptly names Buddy Love. Unfortunately, there's one side effect: Buddy can't control when he'll change back into Julius, an event that always happens at inopportune times. How will Julius/Buddy resolve his Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma? Written by
One of the most depressing symptoms of the phenomenon of "dumbing down" is the drastically diminished time-frame of people's imagination and empathy, which function well enough microscopically and telescopically (at a range of, say, two or three hundred years, or the day before yesterday), but which cannot make the small leap back thirty or forty years. It is surely on such grounds that Jerry Lewis's masterpiece, "The Nutty Professor", might be dismissed as "dated" or be found "unfunny". Ever since I saw this movie as a child back in the late 60s it has haunted my imagination, and taken on a mythic existence that floats free of its actual content and context. On recently viewing it again on a borrowed videocassette I was startled by the internal organisation of the movie, by its pacing, and by the fact that Kelp's odious alter-ego, Buddy Love, who dominates the movie conceptually, is actually on screen for so little of its longish running-time. Since childhood I had cherished Buddy Love for his wit, glamour and self-assurance, which contrast so strongly (and therapeutically) with the painful gaucheness of Julius Kelp. Only now, as a mature adult, do I fully appreciate just how fundamentally unlikeable he is.
It is interesting to note that his allure works better at a distance: idolised by the hipster habitues of the Purple Pit, he is viewed with deep suspicion by Stella Purdy, even as he fascinates and intrigues her. "The Nutty Professor" is as firmly located in its milieu (the United States of the early 60s) as "War And Peace" is in its (Tsarist Russia at the time of the Napoleonic Wars); therefore, talk of "datedness" is beside the point. As an exact picture of life in 2001 the film is hopeless, but as a myth or parable, with Kelp, Buddy Love, Stella, et al., as archetypes, its power is undiminished. Jerry Lewis has never been happy playing it straight, and Buddy Love is as extreme and grotesque in his way as the hapless Kelp. He is also by no means entirely free of Kelp's flaws; his clumsiness during the slow dance with Stella shows how aspects of Kelp's personality continue to permeate his, and point to the incompleteness and volatility of the metamorphosis. Even his name, opportunistically extemporised for Stella's benefit, contains a deep irony, since, in spite of his superficial popularity and supreme sexual confidence, he is essentially friendless and incapable of deep feeling. If kindly Kelp is crippled by involuted intelligence, the sybaritic, self-seeking Buddy Love is stunted by affectlessness. (I am puzzled by the IMDb reviewer who found him insufficiently monstrous.)
Buddy Love's glittering lounge suits emit a satanic glow, and Jennifer, the caged mynah-bird, is a kind of familiar to Kelp, whose Faustian alchemy effects his painfully achieved and all-too-brief transformations into this eerie nightclub singer who generally only appears after nightfall (his one diurnal appearance being a spectacularly successful bid to persuade the otherwise pompous college Principal to sanction his headlining performance at the Senior Prom). In view of their acrimonious split it is tempting to view the Buddy Love persona as an acerbic commentary on Lewis's erstwhile partner Dean Martin, but the character also contains generous helpings of Frank Sinatra, and is perhaps best seen as a broad swipe at the Rat Pack. The wider message of the film is that kindness and intelligence (which Kelp already possesses) are far more important than the kind of shallow and flashy qualities that invest Buddy Love with his powerful but limited appeal (the rapid wearing-off of Kelp's formula, whose ingestion is attended by such agonising side-effects, shows that such a persona is literally unsustainable for any length of time).
Kelp's final speech at the Prom, when his appearance as Buddy Love has been cut catastrophically short, is indeed "heart-wrenching", but as both a summing-up of the main themes of the movie and a token of Kelp's increased self-knowledge, it is indispensable. This brilliant and disturbing film uses comedy as a vehicle to explore serious questions about the nature of identity. The Kelp who wins Stella's love is a better-integrated personality than either his earlier self or the grotesque alter-ego of Buddy Love, but a note of mild cynicism (defusing any hint of sentimentality in Kelp's Prom speech) is sounded when Stella pockets two phials of the formula put on sale by Kelp's formerly timid father (to whom he had entrusted it). (He had also entrusted it, of course, to his domineering mother, but it is perhaps significant to observe that the formula presumably only works with men.)
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