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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Nutty Professor(s) (review)

by MaryAnn Johanson

Weird Science

The National Association for the Advancement of Scientists needs to hire itself a better PR team. Somebody needs to be shooting out angry press releases aimed at Hollywood, decrying the way scientists are depicted onscreen, because if they aren’t evil geniuses hell-bent on destroying the world, then they’re invariably hopeless dweebs with no chance of snagging a girl (all scientists are heterosexual males, see) without the help of a little mad science. No wonder all those high-tech jobs are going begging.
Bad scientist
And it’s all Jerry Lewis’s fault. No, not really. But his 1963 The Nutty Professor features what is probably the best-known dork in Hollywood’s scientific community. Professor Julius Kelp (Lewis) is a cartoonish 98-pound weakling with buck teeth and crooked geek glasses — you know, those black-rimmed kind that have actually become cool today. And despite the fact that he blows up his college classroom with alarming regularity, which you’d think might deter bullies, he gets pushed around and locked in storage closets by football-player students.

But it’s a pretty coed, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens*), who finally inspires Kelp to go the Charles Atlas route and toughen himself up to impress her. The gym does him no good, however, so after trying and failing the old-fashioned way to turn himself cool, he goes for the modern approach: chemistry. He develops a secret formula that, when ingested, turns him into… Dean Martin. Or someone very like.

Buddy Love, as Kelp’s alter ego dubs himself, is, I suppose, the height of early 60s fashion in his powder-blue sharkskin suit, pink shirt, and black tie. And that it appears that the Exxon Valdez has run aground in his hair is also a sign of the times, I guess. But what I really don’t get is why “the kids” — so called to distract the audience from the fact that the actors portraying them appear to be pushing 40; some of those football players are balding, fer pete’s sake — think he all that. Buddy starts haunting The Purple Pit — the squarest student hangout you’ve ever seen, but well-suited to middle-aged undergrads, perhaps — tinkling the piano keys, singing in his squeaky, rather high-pitched voice, and generally comporting himself a lounge lizard with a nasty hangover. And how do “the kids” react to him? “He’s like too much,” one girl sighs. He’s “one of the great swingers of all time,” says another. He’s an obnoxious, greasy jerk… and they love him for it. I never did understand the appeal of the Rat Pack, either, though.

Directed by Lewis, and written by Lewis and Bill Richmond, The Nutty Professor swings wildly between obvious, cartoonish humor — long scenes of Lewis, as Kelp, merely making goofy faces; Kelp’s arms stretched out like Plastic Man’s when he drops a barbell to the floor — and much more subtle attempts at parody, like the impersonation of Martin, and satire, like Buddy’s over-the-top macho act in trying to woo Stella. The combination never worked for me. The “romantic” scene in which Buddy explains to Stella — who’s simultaneously, and understandably, repelled by and inexplicably attracted to Buddy — why her “no” means “yes,” why she doesn’t really want to refuse his advances, felt merely repugnant, not to mention horribly dated. Buddy is Kelp’s overreaction to being bullied, of course, and Stella sees something of the sweet, if befuddled, Kelp in Buddy. But I never saw it.

I was never quite sure what to make of Stella, either — she’s as Jekyll- and- Hydish as Kelp, prissy and pigtailed in class and vampish and dressed to kill at The Purple Pit. Is she supposed to be satirizing the chameleon talents of women, the various ways that women lead men on, if sometimes inadvertently? Somehow, I doubt it. She never feels like anything more than the prize awaiting Kelp at the end, for his coming to terms with his inner — and outer — nerd.

Sad scientist
Lewis’s Nutty Professor mostly just bored me, but the 1996 update actively annoyed me. Geeks are cool now, so Professor Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy: Bowfinger, Mulan) isn’t just a dorky scientist — he’s a fat, dorky scientist. It’s still acceptable to make fun of fat people, and hack director Tom Shadyac (Patch Adams) will do so with gleeful abandon. And he’ll throw in lots and lots of fart jokes, too. Boy o boy, farts sure are funny, ain’t they?

It took four writers — including Shadyac — to adapt Lewis and Richmond’s original Nutty Professor script, and they managed to remove what little dramatic impetus once existed. Wellman College grad student/teacher Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett**: Return to Paradise, Scream 2) catches Sherman’s eye immediately, and when he works up the courage to ask her for a date, she agrees, graciously and with obvious delight. Sherman is hugely overweight, and that can ruin a guy’s confidence, but she likes him, she really likes him. Kelp, in the original, didn’t even have that kind of encouragement. In a further disposal of story catalyst, Sherman discusses his line of research — a weight-loss formula he has been testing on hamsters — with Carla, a fellow scientist, thereby eliminating any reason he might have to lie to Carla — and invent Buddy Love — when he does, indeed, test his formula on himself. Lie he does, anyway. Note to Shadyac: Good writers come up with rationales for a character’s behavior that go beyond mere plot convenience.

And why is Sherman, who seemed on the verge of being comfortable with himself, pushed to experiment on himself? Why, it was the embarrassing experience of his date with Carla. It’s not that she rejects him — she doesn’t — but that he’s the subject of a merciless ridiculing by this madman director, Shadyac.

Oh, it takes the form of a reverse heckling by a stand-up comic (the relentlessly unfunny David Chappelle: You’ve Got Mail, Con Air) at the club Sherman and Carla go to, but Shadyac is the mastermind behind it. This meanspirited flick constantly and deliberately puts Sherman in situations where his size is an issue, like the crowded club, where he has trouble navigating the closely placed tables, or the college dean’s office, where the chairs are too small for him and Dean Richmond (Larry Miller: Runaway Bride) can then insult him as a “fat tub of goo” and taunt him with an offer of “juice, coffee, rack of lamb?” (Fat people never stop eating, see.) Papa Klump (also Murphy), at the family’s Sunday dinner, rants, when he sees that Sherman isn’t chowing down, about how awful it is that everyone is trying to lose weight, that our society is obsessed with weight, that Oprah looked great before she lost weight, and that isn’t the world supposed to be full of people who come in all shapes and sizes? It doesn’t seem we’re intended to take him seriously, though, because Shadyac shows off Papa Klump as a joke. He, and all the Klumps, including Mama and Grandma (also Murphy — no wonder black actors complain there are no roles for them), are loud, rude, crude, and disgusting in all the ways that pass for humor these days… lots of farts and inane sexual innuendo, that is. Who on Earth would buy the idea that it’s okay to be fat, anyway?

As the comic mocks Sherman, the strings on the soundtrack swell and Shadyac slowly zooms in on Sherman’s dismayed face. We’re supposed to feel sorry for Sherman, and I do: this movie gives him the same reaming the stand-up does. And what recourse does a character in a movie have against his faultfinding director?

*Is it me, or is there something a wee bit suspicious about actors who share their first name with their character?
**Jada Pinkett edges up a notch in my estimation for being able to portray a character not named Jada.

[reader comments on this review]

The Nutty Professor (1963)
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

The Nutty Professor (1996)
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13

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