No, this is not the Louie Anderson story. Judge Aaron Bossig learned that too late.
Reviewing this movie has been particularly challenging, mostly because I've thoroughly loved every other Gene Wilder movie I've seen. Surely, I thought, The World's Greatest Lover would turn out to be an overlooked gem of a movie. It starred not only Gene, but Carol Kane and Dom Deluise. Yet, after a half hour, I'd barely cracked a smile. Why? Where had this movie gone wrong?
Facts of the Case
In Silent-Era Hollywood, Rudolph Valentino is the hottest actor around. Radiating charisma and sex appeal on-screen, women want him and men want to be him…and every major studio wants him for themselves. Finally, one studio decides to one-up the industry by holding a "World's Greatest Lover" contest, in an attempt to lure out an average guy who could become the next silver screen heartthrob.
Enter Rudy Valentine (Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles), an underachieving schmuck of a baker who happens to have a similar name. Despite having nothing in common with Valentino (in terms of looks or talent), he enters the contest hoping to get the man's job. Rudy's wife Annie (Carol Kane, Taxi), however, sets her sights on snagging Valentino himself.
Gene Wilder is one of my favorite actors.
If (like me) you picked up this movie because you're familiar with Gene Wilder's other works, you're in for a big disappointment. Don't pop in this DVD with fond memories of Gene as Dr. Frankenstein. In Young Frankenstein, Wilder let his temper fly to hysterical effect. "If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes, with quiet, dignity, and grace…SON OF A BITCH BASTARD! I'LL GET YOU FOR THIS!" The World's Greatest Lover offers no such charm. Whereas in Brooks' film, Wilder's rants were tempered by his otherwise gentle demeanor, there is no such control in this film. In Greatest Lover, Gene rants and screams like a banshee, and what could be comic and brilliant ends up grating and obnoxious.
Likewise, don't expect to relive the cool charm Gene brought to the role of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. In perhaps his most famous role, Wilder would deliver brilliant likes with such a calm precision. To this day, I still laugh when I hear him say "These are simple farmers. These are people of the land, the common clay of the New West. You know, morons." This careful comedic timing is also absent from The World's Greatest Lover. Even when he's not trying to rant, there's a bit of panic and irritation in every line of Rudy Valentine's.
No, I can't even say that The World's Greatest Lover is a decent companion to Gene's performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Despite being manic, Gene portrayed Wonka with an air of subtlety and sophistication that is completely absent from his performance as Rudy Valentine. In the former movie, he managed to be lovable despite taking obvious pleasure in tormenting obnoxious kids. In the latter, I can't grow attached to his character no matter how hard I try. During one scene, Rudy is listening to an instructional record in a music store, telling him how to be a better actor. He practices using his coat and hat as an acting partner. The record tells him how to express his emotions with his face (remember, this was the silent era), and this affords Gene the chance to be as funny as he can be. Minutes later, the record has him doing a strip-tease in the middle of the music store, and what started out as a funny bit ends up being just plain dumb.
It's not all about Gene, though he did write, direct, and star in the movie. Other things pulled it down too. The subplot of Rudy's wife trying to betray him doesn't mix well. It's not even presented in a funny or lighthearted manner—she's a genuine bitch to him. Halfway through the movie, I was thinking that he'd be better off without her, and nothing that happened later ever swayed me from that mentality. Like most comedies, Greatest Lover tries to wrap up with a happy ending, but I really wasn't that concerned with seeing Rudy and Annie reunite.
In an attempt to reconcile my still-mixed feelings about the movie, I flipped on the audio commentary by Gene Wilder. He does own up to the drastic shift in tone. As the making of the film went on, the script became more concerned with the story than with the jokes, which I imagine happens to many comedies to some degree. In this particular case, though, it focused on so much story there was precious little room for jokes. The last act is all about Rudy getting Annie back, which as I said before, I hadn't really concerned myself with. The stuff I was looking for, classic Wilder comedy, was nowhere to be found.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One might say that the flaws in this movie are more about my own failed expectations than on any faulty writing or acting. The bulk of my complaints about The World's Greatest Lover revolves around its shortcomings as an alleged comedy. If we forget that the film was pitched as a comedy, and approach it on its own terms, the story has some merit. Seeing small-time Rudy try to make it big in Hollywood is a refreshingly genuine story. I also appreciate the relatively basic love story of a man trying to appeal to his wife's romantic sensibility. It's simple and believable. Like Gene says during his commentary, there aren't many movies like this made today.
It may be a very superficial compliment, but I was very satisfied with the film's portrayal of Hollywood in the early 1900s. As a movie enthusiast, it was rewarding to see a more formal, more regal Hollywood. Some things never change, it's still a place of politics and insanity, but The World's Greatest Lover depicts an air of majesty on the film studios, an air that is lost today. If nothing else, the period provided for some nice window dressing on an otherwise uneven movie.
Mulling it over, The World's Greatest Lover is truthfully not a bad movie. It is, however, a very underwhelming comedy, especially when it promotes itself by saying "Go ahead…Laugh!" The movie is also not a great showcase for Gene Wilder's talent, and when I look back on his career, I'll likely gloss over this title. The DVD is fairly well-made, with solid video and audio, and the commentary is a very welcome bonus. However, I'd strongly recommend starting with a rental.
The World's Greatest Lover is found guilty of desecrating my fond memories of Gene Wilder. The movie is hereby sentenced to be sent down the chute with the other bad eggs.
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