"The Nutty Professor," a 1963 comedy starring Jerry Lewis, has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It's on the AFI list of best comedies, and was a new entry on this year's They Shoot Pictures Don't They list. And it's also available on Netflix's Instant Streaming, so I thought I'd take a look at it, figuring that if I was striking out with modern comedies, a classic with such high credentials might be more to my tastes. No such luck. I hated it.
Professor Julius Kelp, played by Lewis, is nerdiest nerd who ever graced the silver screen, a klutz who speaks in an asthmatic whine and is, of course, terribly unlucky in love. Bullied by his own students and humiliated in front of the charming co-ed, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), who is the object of his affections, Kelp decides to improve himself. After rigorous physical exercise leads nowhere, he uses his superior intellect to create a formula for a special serum. This changes him into the uber-cool "swinger," Buddy Love, a charismatic musician with confidence to spare. Unfortunately, the serum tends to wear off at the most inopportune times, and Stella is not as easily won over by Buddy's charms as the professor hopes.
Now I was already somewhat familiar with the character of the Nutty Professor, since he's thoroughly seeped into the American pop culture. Professor Frink from "The Simpsons" and all the Jerry Lewis caricatures from "Animaniacs" are based on this guy. However, I wasn't prepared for how much of an extreme dork the professor really was. Kelp is the most unflattering parody of a nerd that I've ever seen, a paragon of spasmodic geekery that I suspect may have contributed heavily to the enduring stereotype of the "Revenge of the Nerds" style dweeb that I always hated. It's such an awful, negative image, one that equates high intellect with social impairment, low athletic ability, unattractiveness, and a variety of physical ailments.
The worst part is that underneath the surface exterior Professor Julius Kelp isn't a very likeable man, and he's downright unpleasant as Buddy Love. In the Eddie Murphy "Nutty Professor" remake from the 90s, at least the plus-sized Herman Klump was shown to be a sweet, decent guy, worthy of our sympathies and the woman he was pursuing. In the Lewis movie, even if you overlook the fact that Kelp is making eyes at one of his own students, he doesn't come across nearly as well. His affection for Miss Purdy, a cute blonde in a tight sweater, seems awfully superficial. Most of their meaningful interactions happen when Kelp is Buddy Love, the raging jerk, and it's never quite clear if Buddy is inherently a part of Julius Kelp's own psyche or maybe an inversion of it. In any case, I never felt like rooting for him and Stella to get together.
And speaking of Buddy, the character was downright repellent. He wasn't funny, he wasn't the least bit interesting to watch, and his casual chauvinism grated every time he opened his mouth. The traits that were supposed to make him so irresistible to women were totally lost on me. Buddy seemed more like a teenage boy's misguided conception of what a ladies' man should be than anything resembling reality. I wonder if It might be a generational thing, but the film has such a rudimentary, schoolyard conception of gender relations, I think it might have played better if all the characters were high school aged. It already feels like a kids' film, based in a zany comedy universe full of visual gags straight from Looney Tunes.
Does "The Nutty Professor" have it's good points? Sure. Some of the sight gags based on cartoon physics got me to chuckle a few times. You can see the influence of the animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin, who Lewis worked with earlier in his career. I also thought that Lewis's final transformation from Buddy Love into Julius Kelp was very well done, really the only genuine emotional moment in the film that worked. But good grief, if you want to talk about a comedy that has not aged well, this is it. When I saw the Eddie Murphy take on the story, I thought it was pretty mediocre. I liked the messages about not judging a book by its cover, but I figured those must have originated with the Jerry Lewis movie. I mean, surely the 1963 version must have been better, since it was so well regarded, right?
Oh, I was wrong.