The anger did him in. You hear it in the early monologues, but there’s still a lot of warmth in his jokes. He loves life:
‘”Fuck you.” Never understood that insult, because fucking someone is actually really pleasant. If we’re trying to be mean, we should say “unfuck you!”‘
He cares about the world:
“All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.”
The film splices the late monologues into the early years of Bruce’s career, so even as you see him falling in love with his wife, Honey, a stripper, and starting to hit the big-time, you know their relationship is doomed. His career is doomed. There’s also a mock-documentary being recorded as you’re watching Bruce’s rise and fall. Mostly it’s Honey talking about him with sadness, regret, guilt, the occasional sweet memory lighting up her face before the interviewer’s questions drag her back into the downward-spiraling story of Bruce’s many arrests, some for obscenity, some for possession of narcotics. Everyone talks about how much they miss him, but nobody could divert him from his self-destructive path.
At some point, the injustice of his harassment by the government became his act, and Bruce stopped being funny. His rage was now focused on himself, you feel; the world was still terrible, and wonderful, if you looked at it the right way, without censorship and prudery: “If something about the human body disgusts you complain to the manufacturer.” But Bruce knew he’d screwed up.
I’m still feeling badly for trashing the character Dustin Hoffman played in “The Graduate.” So let me say that his Lenny Bruce is letter perfect. When he goes out on stage in his final monologue, so strung out on drugs that he can’t remember his shtick, can’t summon up the outrage to be funny, your heart will break for what this country did to the man, and it’s all thanks to Hoffman that we appreciate the talented comedian on his own terms.
“You can’t shut up the deviant,” he tells the judge who convicts him in a New York courtroom. “You need the deviant to tell you when you are fucking up!”
(14 July 2011)