It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Lenny Bruce, who died in 1966, would no doubt have had a lot to say about such events as the 1968 Democratic convention, Vietnam, Watergate, AIDS, Reagan and Clinton. He is remembered as a sort of liberating martyr, a prophet of the morass we were all heading for. That he was to a great extent a self-made martyr seems beside the point.
The deification began with Julian Barry’s play, adapted for Bob Fosse’s “Lenny,” and continued with Albert Goldman’s book “Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!” and the “Lenny Bruce Performance Film.” His albums are back in the record stores and, all things considered, Lenny Bruce is still one of our most successful comedians.
All of this myth-making involves playing fast and loose with the facts, which do not make Lenny Bruce out as quite the heroic figure we’re now asked to accept. But no matter. If the film “Lenny” works as fiction, that’s all we have the right to expect. The problem is that it doesn’t. Bob Fosse, who captured a time and form of show business so memorably in “Cabaret,” tries this time for a quasi-documentary style that gets in the way of his, and Lenny’s, material. And Dustin Hoffman, good as he is in the title role, is never quite permitted to put together an organic, three-dimensional character.
Fosse’s approach seems at least partly inspired by “Citizen Kane.” After Bruce’s death, an anonymous investigator or biographer interviews several people who were close to him: his wife, a stripper named Honey; his mother; his agent. Their memories and anecdotes provide a loose framework for flashbacks in which we trace Bruce’s rise (or fall, as the case may be). We get Lenny Bruce as the aspiring and appallingly bad young comic working fourth-rate dives, and his material is indeed as bad as Warren Beatty’s stand-up comedian in “Mickey One.” We get him gradually discovering that relevance in his act turns him on, gets him involved. And then we see him edging toward the liberating but legally obscene material that was to make him such a consistent target of tireless vice cops.