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Review: Lenny (1974)

Lenny (1974)

Directed by: Bob Fosse

Premise: A biopic of Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman), a stand up comic whose act included use of coarse language and taboo subject matter that got him in trouble with the law.

What Works: Lenny is a terrific biopic. Shot in black and white and alternating between footage of Lenny’s characteristic act and his early life and career, the film chooses a structure and an aesthetic that fit its subject perfectly. Dustin Hoffman gives one of the great performances of his career as Lenny Bruce; it’s a role that requires a lot of imitation of a well known figure but also demands that the actor fill in the private portion and make connections between the two, and with the help of the screenplay Hoffman does this brilliantly. The unsung hero of this film is Valerie Perrine as Honey Bruce, Lenny’s wife. She narrates most of the story, providing a lot of the frame for the narrative and an emotional grounding for the film’s most heartbreaking moments. Honey’s interaction with Lenny does more than anything, even the court cases, to mine Lenny Bruce’s psyche and fill out the character study of this man. As a film, Lenny is an interesting piece of political cinema. Like The People vs. Larry Flynt, the film spends a lot of its time portraying a man who fought the establishment over obscenity and the picture clearly takes a side on this issue, sympathizing with Lenny’s struggles. It’s hard not to, given that Lenny’s arguments were so true and his use of language is now commonplace. But what is more impressive and more important is that Lenny shows the link between the oppression of the establishment and the stifling of the culture. Lenny’s standup was not just dirty words for cheap laughs; it was social commentary that paved the way for future talents like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Bill Maher.

What Doesn’t: The film does follow a lot of conventions of the Hollywood success story, with Lenny struggling before finding success and then finding that success poisons his personal life with excess and drugs. This film smartly maintains its focus on Lenny’s legal struggles and how they impact the rest of his life, but anyone who has seen The Doors or Walk the Line will probably figure out where this story is headed.

DVD extras: Trailer.

Bottom Line: Lenny is a tribute to a man ahead of him time. It is an extremely well crafted picture that combines a Hollywood success story, a courtroom drama, and a character study to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Episode: #196 (July 6, 2008)