Forgotten Films: Way…Way Out (1966)
From the tragic to the tragique, I realize I’ve written very little on Monsieur Jerry Lewis, the greatest living comedic filmmaker on the planet (alongside Woody) despite the highly debatable nature of his output or even if some consider it comedic at all. Or do they? Lewis was the butt of many jokes about bad comedy in the 1970’s-80’s until his critical reformation in THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) — and Lewis was right, the critics are usually the last to know. That was then. Is there actually anybody now who can’t find something hilarious in any Jerry Lewis film? Maybe John Simon or Rex Reed. Or the authors of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED (1970). Woody Allen even asked The Idiot to direct TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) and Lewis told him to do it himself. I was glad to see Jerry take the stage and finally get his Academy Award, though he shoulda been nominated for Best Actor as THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963) — as Eddie Murphy also should have in the otherwise uneven re-make in 1996. Like Marty Scorcese, I keep a treasured copy of “The Total Film-Maker” close to my vest.
All of which is fanfare about a flea, since we’re talking WAY…WAY OUT from 1966, one of Lewis’ rarely-screened and unavailable films. I recall seeing this only once in my TV childhood, a CBS Late Night Movie I believe; I was an astronaut geek and intrigued by its 60’s space age ambiance. Plus I was a Lewis fan as most children were. But this was one of the transitional films where Lewis was trying to update his man-child persona into swinging bachelorhood, the same way Julius Kelp transforms into Buddy Love, though less obnoxious. Paramount wanted Lewis to stop directing, stop getting all artistic and go back to the laughs, as in the sexy swinging stews comedy with Tony Curtis, BOEING BOEING (1965). That was his last film at the studio, but he tried this soft approach at 20th Century Fox. But comparing THE NUTTY PROFESSOR to WAY…WAY OUT shows the fallacy of that argument.
The screenplay by William Bowers is the highly probable story of a 1989 cosmic cold sex war as Jerry Lewis and Connie Stevens, the first American married astronauts, are sent to a moonbase along with a horny Russian couple. Wacky outer space 60’s hi-jinks ensue. Or don’t, depending on your comedy bent. The gags are on the level of a risque party jokebook, with the characters as strained as the material. And as directed by that venerable workhorse Gordon Douglas (THEM; OCEAN’S ELEVEN), the set-ups are more static than a CinemaScope episode of LOST IN SPACE. Yet…yet there are pleasures to be had in WAY…WAY OUT. The movie blasts off from the get go-go with the infectious theme song by Gary Lewis & The Playboys along with Lalo Schifrin, who composed the supercool soundtrack (which is what most favorably remember about this effort along with its spaz star). The widescreen frame gives this low-budget film an epic Pan Am sheen; the production design is suitably NASA pop for the era.
Then of course there’s Jerry Lewis, who doesn’t show up for ten minutes, and who plays in a lower-idiot key, more of a men’s magazine cad than bumbling fool. As others have discovered, Lewis does just as well when under-playing and over-playing, but it’s also true that this kind of part could have been written for Tony Curtis or James Garner and doesn’t take advantage of Lewis’s physical gifts until the end of the movie as the astronauts engage in an all-too-brief space brawl. He’s also at his best in a scene where he becomes brazen and obnoxious in a drunken report to Robert Morley. The supporting cast is very interesting, especially one of my favorites, Dick Shawn, as the lovable Russian cosmonaut. Dennis Weaver and Howard Morris play the crazed, frustrated astronauts who have a complete breakdown with Weaver surprisingly funny. Brian Keith is good as a stern general cast in the DR. STRANGELOVE-mode. And it wouldn’t officially be a 60’s sex comedy without Anita Elkberg. Va-va-va zoom, lady!