Three on a Couch was the first film Jerry Lewis made after parting ways with Paramount, the studio that nurtured his comic talent for fifteen years. Released by Columbia, the story sees Jerry play Christopher Pride, a struggling artist who finally wins recognition… from the French. A case of art foreshadowing real life, methinks. Alongside a $10,000 cash prize, Chris is called on to paint a mural in Paris, which dovetails nicely with his plan to marry psychiatrist girlfriend, Dr. Elizabeth Accord (Janet Leigh). But Liz can’t swan off to Paris, since she has her hands full treating three female patients, each of whom have trouble finding romance.
So, with help from best friend Dr. Ben Mizer (James Best), Chris poses as three different suitors: fitness fanatic Warren woos sporty Susan (Mary Ann Mobley), nerdy entomologist Rutherford courts Southern belle Mary Lou (Leslie Parrish), and rough-riding cowboy Ringo Raintree pursues Anna (Gila Golan), an East-European beauty with a thing for westerns. His rather cockeyed plan being to boost the ladies confidence, heal their neuroses and thereafter keep Liz all to himself. All goes swimmingly, until Liz starts noticing similarities when the girls describe their new boyfriends…
Pushing psychological problems to the fore, this is the kind of plot French critics must cite when assessing Jerry Lewis as a serious artist. Yet Lewis shows surprisingly little sympathy for the lovelorn ladies, adopting an tough love approach: “If you fall down, get back on the horse.” Nevertheless this somewhat simplistic view of psychological trauma is balanced with an old school truism: that human interaction is perhaps the best cure for what ails us. Although the script is careful to stress that Chris never actually makes love to any of them, it doesn’t convince us he is suffering too terribly dating three beautiful women.
Mostly though it’s an excuse for shtick and, while a few scenes drag (a reoccurring problem in Lewis’ self-directed efforts), the episodes are often amusing. These include the moment Ringo comes a-cropper at a rodeo, his efforts to chat up Anna whilst distracted by a parade of lingerie models (a reoccurring plus point in Lewis’ self-directed efforts), a karate demonstration where Warren clowns in mock-Japanese, and a surreal romantic interlude where, his back to camera, Chris floats with Liz along the dance floor until collapsing from exhaustion. A very funny scene where Chris switches between Rutherford and his twin sister Henrietta foreshadows Mrs. Doubtfire (1994), while the farewell party wherein both he and his plan unravel spectacularly is memorable too.
Good support from future Dukes of Hazzard stalwart James Best and regular Lewis foil Kathleen Freeman. Janet Leigh is also good but given too little to do, while the conclusion is pat, with Chris’ transgressions too easily glossed over. Not one of Lewis’ finest efforts, but provides a fair few chuckles and a chance to see him suave and debonair, looking far younger than his years. Features a great jazzy soundtrack by Lewis Brown.