WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
If you've ever cracked up to the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, or Sam Kinison, you owe a debt of gratitude to Lenny Bruce. A first-amendment champion and social crusader, Lenny Bruce was a funnyman ahead of his time, misunderstood to the point of incarceration, confused to the point of breakdown and ultimately drug-related suicide.
Directed by Bob Fosse (Cabaret), Lenny chronicles the life and career of Bruce, taking a stark, black-and-white documentary-like approach to the endeavor. The 1974 film was nominated for six Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography—but won none. (The same year saw nominations for The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and Chinatown.) Although Lenny doesn't achieve the greatness of those films, it's a fine film, edgy and fascinating, despite some flaws deep at its heart.
As the film begins, young Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) is a struggling, seemingly no-talent stand-up comic barely making ends meet. He falls for a stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine), whom he quickly marries. The plot then follows the parallel stories of his home life and his career. On stage, Bruce finds burgeoning success in dirty material, focusing on sex and obscenity to the delight of his audience, but more and more he is the target of police raids. With growing passion, he becomes an anti-establishment crusader, crying out against society's moral sicknesses. At home, drugs begin to erode at his marriage, leading to bankruptcy, divorce, and a stranded daughter in search of real parents.
It's a harrowing biography of a lost man, and yet I couldn't help but feel that some key emotion or characterization was missing from the film's dark center. Lenny tends to rely on its true story, laying out the facts and the court papers, but failing to really delve into the minds and hearts of its key players. I value this film for its faith to Bruce's story, but I'm disappointed by its superficiality.
The film's structure deserves special mention. Bruce's story is recounted in flashback from key players in Bruce's life, including his wife. Lenny shifts endlessly from interview snippets to stand-up routines to flashbacks, giving the film an unstable feel that's appropriate to the central character. You're never fully grounded in the story, and I mean that as a compliment. The black-and-white photography reinforces the documentary style of the film.
I was amazed by the two lead performances in Lenny. Hoffman has grabbed onto his role with both hands and has truly inhabited Bruce's character. And Perrine is equally masterful, following a brutal character arc that takes her from frequently naked and youthful stripper to the worn and tragic character that we see in interviews.
A final note: I've listened to many Lenny Bruce recordings, and—unfortunately—in those recordings, he's a much funnier, sharper comedian/commentator than is depicted in this film's stand-up sequences. The selection of routines for Lenny is depressingly dull, forgoing his most uproarious material in favor of his more acerbic, bitter stuff. It's an unfortunate decision that makes the film somewhat more bleak than it should have been.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
MGM presents Lenny in an anamorphic transfer of the film's 1.85:1 original theatrical aspect ratio. The black-and-white image holds up surprisingly well for a 1974 film. Detail is impressive into backgrounds. The print is shockingly clean, exhibiting inevitable and minor dirt specks. I didn't see any halos. Blacks are impressively deep. The only real flaw is the presence of occasional and minor aliasing.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's mono audio track is, obviously, centered at the screen and is adequate for this dialog-driven film. Voices come across very naturally, but highs can be a bit thin.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The original theatrical trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Lenny isn't a great film, but it's a damn good one. This is a film that deserved at least a few supplements. I would have loved to see biographical extras about Bruce's life, or even a commentary from someone with historical perspective. But even on its own, this film is very much worth your time, if only to obtain some notion of why we all need to be thankful for the life of Lenny Bruce.