Thursday, July 8, 2010

Film Review: Three On A Couch

"Three On A Couch" *** (out of ****)

When Jerry Lewis made "Three On A Couch" (1966) it was a turning point in his career. It was his first film made at Columbia Pictures. Lewis was one of the highest paid performers at Paramount Studios where he had directed all of his previous films including "The Nutty Professor" (1963), "The Patsy" (1964) and "The Bellboy" (1960, his directorial debut, which I have also reviewed).

It was also a time when Lewis was starting to lose some of his star power. According to Lewis, Paramount Studios and all the professional film critics, didn't understand his films. They didn't get his humor. They simply had it out for him. But, his films made money. Paramount might have scratch their heads watching his films but one cannot deny he had a devoted following; mostly teenage boys. Though Lewis was starting to become an out-dated taste. None of his films after "Three On A Couch" would match the popularity of his earlier films. Even fans of Lewis would say the quality started to slip.

"Three On A Couch" has been out of circulation for years. It has been suggested this is because of Lewis himself, who was embarrassed by the film. He would not allow it to be seen in wide circulation. It has never been put on DVD and for years was out of circulation on VHS.

Having seen "Three On A Couch" recently I must admit, I find this puzzling. The film doesn't rank among his best; "The Nutty Professor", "The Patsy", but it is not an embarrassment. It is a light diversion. A silly lark of a comedy that suffers a few problems though not a career low-point for Lewis or any other members of the cast.

Lewis plays Christopher Pride, an artist who has won first prize in a contest. As a result he will be sent to France where he will be able to paint a mural. This of course reminds us of the old joke concerning Lewis' popularity among the French.

Christopher wants to bring his girlfriend, Elizabeth Acord (Janet Leigh) with him and hopes to marry her while there. One problem. Elizabeth is a psychiatrist and feels obliged to her patients, particularly three women whom she feels will not be able to function without her while she is away. Christopher objects and feels Elizabeth is not being fair but unless Elizabeth notices a behavior change in her patients she will not go and abandon them.

But Christopher has a plan. The three women; Mary Lou (Leslie Parrish), Anna (Gila Golan) and Susan (Mary Ann Mobley) all have relationship problems. They do not trust men after bad break-ups. Christopher feels all the women need is a man to come along and raise their self-esteem. So, in the hopes of getting Elizabeth to come along with him to Paris, Christopher will pick up the three ladies. He will play three different personalities, trying to match himself to each woman's taste.

Lewis previously acted in "Boeing, Boeing" (1965, which I have reviewed) before this film. That was a sex farce starring Leigh's husband, Tony Curtis. Lewis and Curtis played two ladies men who get in over their heads, taking on multiple romances. I wonder if that movie, in any way, lead Lewis to direct this picture.

One of the strange things regarding "Three On A Couch" is that Lewis didn't write it. The script was by Bob Ross and Samuel A. Taylor. Though I bet Lewis did several re-writes because the film seems tailor made for Lewis. The humor is typical Lewis shtick.

And that leads to one of the problems with the movie. Lewis doesn't really seem correct for the part. It is Christopher's friend, Ben (James Best) who puts the idea in his head that he should romance Elizabeth's patients, because as Ben points out, back in college Christopher was a ladies man. Really? Jerry Lewis a ladies man? That description doesn't fit Lewis. Maybe Tony Curtis should have played the part.

Another problem with Lewis is no matter what character Lewis is playing, in any movie, Jerry Lewis is always going to be Jerry Lewis. That means expect the infantile man-child character. The innocent, gullible, pratfalling goofball. The first time we see Lewis he is walking into a office where he is informed of his prize. He is so stunned he is unable to complete a sentence. He stumbles over words and is overwhelmed with emotion. How is that guy going to pick up a pretty girl? Wouldn't he be too insecure?

Still "Three On A Couch" is mostly able to overcome that problem because the film makes a shift with the Christopher character as he tries to be the person each woman wants.

Watching "Three On A Couch" made me pay more attention to Lewis as a director. Often I don't understand his camera choices. He'll shoot scenes from an over head angle or shoot a scene in a medium shot when I think a long shot would accentuate the joke. Take for example a scene when Christopher, now pretending to be a cowboy named Ringo, tries to pick up Anna, who has a weakness for cowboys. "Ringo" soon becomes distracted because several models start to pass him by. Lewis shoots the scene in a medium shot. The main focus is Lewis, who is making facial expressions. We see only the heads of the women passing. I think Lewis should have gotten everything into frame. We should see the model's entire body. We should see them walking into frame in an almost endless line. That's the joke. But Lewis wants to keep the camera focused on him. He feels he alone is the joke not the situation.

But this all makes it seem like "Three On A Couch" is a bad movie. It isn't. There are some funny moments as the stakes soon begin to rise. There really wasn't anything I found laugh out loud funny but I had a smile on my face. The movie runs a bit too long but Lewis keeps the jokes coming along.

Something to consider while watching this film is the social context. The film was made in 1966, the women's lib movement was pretty strong at that point. Pay attention to what "Three On A Couch" seems to be saying. All three patients are women. All three hate men. Yet, the answer to all of their problems is they need a man. Much pressure is put on Elizabeth to get married and have children, which would put her career on hold. Jerry Lewis once got into trouble when he was quoted as saying women are baby making machines. He said he doesn't find female comics funny, including Lucille Ball (!). "Three On A Couch" might have challenged some female viewers' perceptions.

I'm perfectly aware that in this country Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste. His sense of humor is not for everyone. I'm not Lewis' biggest fan but I'll give him credit when I feel he deserves it. I don't like all of his movies but "Three On A Couch" is a watchable comedy. It can have some cross-over appeal.

My favorite Jerry Lewis quote was by the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who said of Lewis; "[he] is the only one in Hollywood doing something different - the only one making courageous films." Think of that the next time you watch a Jerry Lewis film.