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Interview-style biography of controversial and pioneering stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. The film traces Bruce from his beginnings as a Catskills comic to his later underground popularity based on his anti-establishment politics and his scatological humor. Written by
Scott Renshaw <email@example.com>
A brilliant - if imperfect - biopic of a tragically misunderstood man
Lenny Bruce loved words. The most common misconception is that he did not. Today, Bruce is best known for revolutionizing the face of stand-up paving the way for such future talents as George Carlin and Bill Hicks but not many people are actually familiar with his comedy, and that's a shame, because there was a lot more to it than just swearing.
He was infamously arrested over a dozen or so times for speaking offensively in comedy clubs, and eventually began to represent himself in court. He never gained respect when he was alive, and so he died a frustrated, misunderstood soul who was simply far too ahead of his time.
The masses didn't get him. His racial jokes and political satire was misinterpreted and taken at face value. His sermons ridiculing religion drew hate from conservative Americans.
But Bruce enjoyed toying with words, and bending the typical perception of what they symbolized he cherished the impact they had on people. When Bruce said a certain four-letter expletive, it wasn't to purposely offend people it was to help liberate their ways of thinking. Words were an entryway - once he could knock people off-balance, he was free to go for the throat. He used foul language in the same way as he used words dealing with religion, homosexuals, politics and the world he used them to make a point. And it's a shame his point didn't resonate until after his death.
The makers of "Lenny" understood Bruce, though. They also understood his flaws as a human being, and the result is an unflinchingly honest biopic that paints a dark, staunch portrait of a troubled man. Dustin Hoffman presents Lenny as an alternately despicable and heroic figure, and there is a spark in his eyes throughout the early scenes of the movie that eventually gives way to desperation later in the picture. Hoffman is so convincing we forget we are watching an actor. He entirely embodies himself within Lenny Bruce, adapting all of the comic's tics and habits.
The movie is told from the perspective of those who knew Bruce his wife, Honey (Valerie Perrine), his aunt, and his manager. The narrative cuts back and forth between scenes with Lenny and interview segments, which we see through the eyes of an off-screen interviewer (whose voice is none other than the movie's director, Bob Fosse).
"Lenny" is an uncomfortable film, and it is not by any means perfect. The matter-of-fact narrative is a bit alienating and prevents us from getting entirely close to Bruce but that may very well have been the point. A more heartfelt biography of the performer perhaps would have restricted Fosse and screenwriter Julian Barry from divulging into Lenny's more seedy character traits such as when he coerces his unwilling wife into a threesome with another woman, later ridiculing her for doing so; or when he goes on stage completely drugged out of his mind and makes a fool of himself. If they had allowed audiences to empathize with Bruce to a greater degree, truth may have been sacrificed along the way. And although the narrative is rather cold, it's also unique sometimes refreshingly so.
Despite imperfections, "Lenny" is one of the better motion pictures of the 1970s and perhaps one of the movies that best capture the essence of cinema from a time when the mainstream and art-house were coexistent.
It is a typical 1970s production insofar as that it is grim, bleak and more depressing than any production you would have seen on the screen a decade earlier but it's an admirable feat. Fosse has a close grip on the direction and Hoffman and Perrine are both absolutely superb, bringing to life two very tortured souls who temporarily found solace in each other, before finding their relationship put to the test by drug abuse and self-loathing.
Lenny died from a heroin overdose in 1966. In 2003 he was granted a posthumous pardon by New York State for his most notable arrest in 1964, for an "obscene performance." It's a nice gesture, although one can't help but think it would have only really made a difference 40 years ago.
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