"I heard the truth from Lenny Bruce," goes the Simon & Garfunkel song. The socially conscious standup comic dished out so much truth with his notorious bravado that he wound up in handcuffs and in front of a federal judge on obscenity charges. By poking much-needed holes in our social standards, maladjusted religious pieties, and misuse of language, his nightclub act exposed the hypocrisy and denial our society bathes in. Bruce was smart, observant, and arrived when we really needed him. So it's a cosmic crime that he wasn't strong enough as a human being to keep from pissing his life away until, by 1966, he was just another junkie dead on the bathroom tile. Although Bruce is rightfully seen as a deliriously frank, barrier-busting pioneer whose satirical attacks on common morality made him popular enough to play Carnegie Hall and blow open the doors for Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and the entire existence of Comedy Central, it's still too easy to mythologize him solely as a First Amendment hero and to forget that he was really pretty much a schmuck. And that's a chink in Bob Fosse's stylish 1974 biopic Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman. We barely sense the depth churning underneath this glossy, well-crafted surface.
Based on a stage play written by screenwriter Julian Barry, Lenny serves up thin slices of Bruce's life, reducing its subject to a crown-of-thorns provocateur martyred by The Man. Still, as a romanticized chronicle of Bruce's rise from nervous newcomer (pushed to the stage by his performer mom) to one of the most famous comics in America, this somber and reflective elegy has plenty to recommend it. Hoffman channels Bruce's stage routines with spooky fidelity. His powerhouse performance may feel too Actors Studio at times, but he radiates his broad-spectrum intensity until Lenny becomes something of a Dustin Hoffman film festival in miniature.
Fosse's jazz-like directorial skills display the distinctive tics and flair that help make Cabaret and All That Jazz so fine. It's told within a rhythmically edited faux-documentary frame, shot in striking black-and-white, and uses its Miles Davis musical score very well indeed. Lenny also shows off Valerie Perrine as Bruce's junkie-stripper "Shiksa goddess" wife, stunning anyone who knows her only as the ditzy moll from 1978's Superman. Jan Miner plays his outrageous mother.
Fosse and the script both aim for the trenchant rather than the triumphant, so don't go in expecting a funny movie about a funny man "battling his demons." As we watch Bruce's on-stage self-destruction following his obscenity trials, we know that redemption just won't be coming round the corner. Because Lenny underlines what Lenny Bruce was without offering deeper exploration of why he was, it comes off better as an introduction to its subject than as the final word. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Actress (Perrine), Director, Screenplay Adapted from Other Material, and Cinematography.
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MGM's DVD edition of Lenny presents a clean, sharp print in two options: 1.85:1 (anamorphic) widescreen and 1.33:1 full-screen. Audio comes through well, although without flair, in DD 2.0 monaural. On board are the theatrical trailer (in pretty sad shape) and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Keep-case.