If you go to see most stand up comedians today, you’re likely to hear a few F-words or racy jokes. Back in the sixties, Lenny Bruce was fighting to use those words and jokes in his act. He wasn’t just trying to use his foul mouth simply for a shock factor. His jokes, and the fact that he was arrested for obscene language when artists have a right to free speech, helped expose people to the hypocrisies within their society.
Directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman, Lenny isn’t your straight forward biopic. There are three different time-frames intertwined throughout the film. First, there’s the point A to point B narrative look at Lenny’s life, starting from his early stand up days when he just met Honey (Valerie Perrine) , a stripper he later marries, has a child with and divorces. Then there are cuts from Lenny’s stand up act that help shine more light on situations within the narrative. For example, Lenny’s bit about why men cheat goes on while we see his own infidelities. Finally, there are interviews of Honey, his mother and his agent, weighing in on narrative moments, often with the historical and biographical aspect. Feels like an odd Citizen Kane tribute. Plus, the film is all in black and white, feeling like a gritty sort of German Expressionism, which I found very beautiful.
If “bad words” blind you, you might want to tip-toe through this paragraph, because what I really loved about this film, is how Lenny uses his act to make his audience question what is considered indecent. After Lenny is arrested for using the word “cock-sucking” in his act, he knows he is being watched like a hawk on stage. So he decides to point out the police in the theater, now watching and waiting for him to trip up, and confess to his audience that he was arrested for a term that he now refers to as “blah-blahing.” For the next few minutes, he discusses “blah-blahing” with the audience and the whole bit is ten times as dirty as when he just spoke the word as a noun once. Yet, the police don’t move. It seems they’re just waiting for an obscene word, ideas are fair game.
While part of me embraces this cynical, foul mouthed liberation of ideas onto the masses, it doesn’t feel like comedy. It feels like preaching with a few punchlines. You put Hoffman’s Lenny next to an evangelical preacher and you’ll find opposite words and messages united by a style that easily infiltrates softer minds. Simply, if you don’t agree with the man with the microphone, then you look like the enemy.
As for Hoffman’s performance, there’s good and bad. There is a beautiful energy and passion he puts into Lenny, mostly off stage. His early chemistry with Perrine is wonderful. The few moments we see Lenny falling hypocritical to his own stand up routine make him feel real. For example, as a bit in his act talks about how ridiculous it is for men to “always expect women to be a combination Sunday school teacher, and $500-a-night hooker,” he suggests that Honey stop stripping. I think he realizes how contradictory we all are.
While Lenny is a great way to learn about the infamous Lenny Bruce, it seems to build him up as this martyr for the future of comedy. I hate to ruin the ending for everyone, but dying of a drug overdose doesn’t gain much sympathy from me. The film is done well, the style is consistent and thoughtful, but the story of Lenny is not anything that stirs me, but thanks for taking a few hits so we can say all the things that just get bleeped on television. And if you cover your ears at strong language or cover your eyes at risqué images, there isn’t much here left for you.
“If you just found those two words obscene you probably can’t come.”