Warren Nefron (Jerry Lewis) is suicidal. Nothing he ever does turns out right. He ties a noose to the ceiling of his hotel room, but it proves too long to hang himself. Then with one tug he rips the rafters and demolishes the entire building! In desperation Warren consults psychiatrist Dr. Jonas Pletchik (Herb Edelman), recounting troubles that reach back beyond his first day at school to encompass his 15th century French ancestor, Jacques Nefron (Lewis again), a coachman to buxom Countess Marie Dubois (Francine York). Having regaled the good doctor with his woes, Warren encounters a tap-dancing bank robber (Lewis once more) who performs in front of a (literally) captive audience till the cops come along and join in, and an angry anti-smoking campaigner (Dick Butkus) who keeps punching him in the face. Eventually, Warren learns of a wise Tibetan mystic (guess who?) who may hold the cure for his woes, but has to endure a nightmare journey via the world’s worst low-budget airline.
This portmanteau comedy, originally titled Smorgasbord (a title seen playing in theatres as Jerry walks by), marks the last time Jerry Lewis directed for the big screen although he helmed an anti-racist short film for UNICEF in the mid-Nineties. While unsuccessful on its cinema release, regular screenings on cable television earned a fan-following among young viewers, but sadly a heart attack coupled with Hollywood’s waning interest put a full-stop to Jerry’s directing career. Which is a great shame because Cracking Up was the funniest movie he had made in fifteen years.
A great many Jerry Lewis movies were episodically structured around a series of skits, but Cracking Up takes this to its nth degree, being held together with only the barest wisp of a plot. Eventually its stream-of-consciousness narrative unravels into simple incoherence, but even so Jerry keeps throwing inspired ideas and characterisations onscreen. His hilarious strained encounter with a whiny waitress (Zane Buzby) who keeps reeling off menu options; his delightful pigeon French dialogue with Francine York (punctuated, to his own bemusement, by snippets of German and Japanese) that builds into a tragicomic Count of Monte Cristo spoof; the art gallery wherein his zany antics bring paintings to life; the cheap aeroplane captained by a belligerent drunk (Foster Brooks, who repeated his act on many sitcoms around this time), powered by slaves in chains and where the in-flight movie consists of a flick-book; the Tibetan mystic’s refusal of an anaesthetic while having major surgery; and Warren eavesdropping on a sultry-sounding lady nymphomaniac who turns out to be… Milton Berle in drag!
Often overlooked is the manner in which every one of Jerry’s movies is a psychological self-portrait, a peek into his then-current state of mind. “I’m a misfit. I don’t fit. Nothing I do is right”, laments Warren, where Jerry might just be describing his own place in Eighties Hollywood. The world - as embodied by a procession of rude, belligerent, or inexplicable minor characters - is driving Warren crazy. Yet though he wants out, and tries to commit suicide in manners thankfully far funnier than the premise suggests, the world will not let him go. Like Warren, Jerry Lewis is a prisoner of his own need to engage with the world in some way, even though the means by which he does so is ill-received by critics or the public. Eventually, Warren finds an answer by way of hypnotherapy (his trigger-word is “smorgasbord”), but Jerry closes the film by showing us the world still exists in chaos. Which makes it seem as if Warren has chosen to opt out rather than find peace with the world. At least Lewis dished out some funny gags for his last turn behind the camera. Main title song sung by Marcel Marceau. Get it?