Bo Hooper (Jerry Lewis) is a circus clown left unemployed when the big top closes down and forced to live with his kindly sister Claire Trent (Susan Oliver). Much to the annoyance of his drunkenly obnoxious brother-in-law Robert (Roger C. Carmel). Aided by Claire, Bo tries his hand at a number of new jobs, including gas-station attendant, glass factory worker, bartender at a disco/strip bar and sushi chef (donning buck teeth and goofy glasses for a cringe-worthy Japanese impression), but his natural klutziness keeps causing calamity. Finally, Bo lands a promising job at the postal service, but inadvertently outrages his uptight boss (Leonard J. Stone) by dating his daughter, single mom Millie (Deanna Lund).
Following his notorious, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972), comedian Jerry Lewis did not make another film for almost ten years. His eventual comeback picture, Hardly Working was actually completed in 1979, but distributors Twentieth Century Fox seemed reluctant to release it until the film became a box-office success across Europe. To everyone’s surprise, it was a big hit in America too, proving audiences really had missed Jerry Lewis, even though critics trashed it mercilessly. Roger Ebert went so far as to call it “one of the worst movies to achieve commercial release in this country.”
Ebert overstates the case, but Hardly Working does not get off to the best start. A montage of past Lewis classics, including The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Errand Boy (1961), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) and The Patsy (1964), plays like an ode to self-love, while much of what unfolds has the ambience of a second-rate sitcom, underlining how crucial the production values at the old studio-era Paramount were to his flights of fancy. The circus scenes are steeped in sadness with Jerry - wearing his old clown makeup from 3 Ring Circus (1954) - playing a slightly embittered, middle-aged version of the accident-prone man-child he used to be.
“What I want is a direction, a purpose” says Bo early on, which seems to be the film’s dominant theme (tellingly the opening credits read: “Jerry Lewis is Hardly Working”), although the plot plays pretty similar to earlier Lewis movies about hapless young men proving their worth to various women, family members and authority figures. Except the problem is, Jerry isn’t a young man here, he’s fifty-something. By this stage, new talents like Steve Martin were bringing an even zanier edge to screen comedy and beating Lewis at his own game. Hardly Working unfolds in a leisurely, episodic fashion with pratfalls and routines that hark back to past classics.
A number of gags fall flat, including Bo’s joyride aboard a blimp (so brief, you wonder why he bothered), parodies of then-current television commercials, digs at President Jimmy Carter, and the legendary disco dream sequence that finds our hero decked out in a white suit, John Travolta style as he busts some crazy moves with dance partner (and real-life wife) Sandee “Sam” Pitnick. Others are vintage Lewis, such as the “Dunkin’ Donuts” routine with old sparring partner Leonard J. Stone, a hilarious argument with an automated voice on an answering machine, and his appearance in drag as a bizarrely accented female tennis player (“You’re sweet, pussycat. You fool around?”). Irwin Allen fans will likely recognise Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants but the film also features the last acting performance from Bob May, who played the robot in Lost in Space.
Combined with Morton Stevens’ nostalgic score, the supporting turns from Lewis regulars Susan Oliver, Buddy Lester and Steve Franken add an air of cosy familiarity that might be why audiences warmed to this. And yet it’s undercut by a whiff of misanthropy that suggests Jerry is equally fed up with the world that has no place for his brand of showbiz. Weirdest of all is the climax, wherein Bo dons clown makeup to perform an act of self-destruction, blowing the only job he was ever good at just to make a point. Do folks in Florida really call the cops when they see mail men dressed as clowns? Equally unsettling, the closing shot suggests Millie has abandoned her young son (who loathes Bo) to run away with our hero. Guess there is only room for one overgrown little boy in this substitute mom’s life.
Lewis was unable to capitalise on Hardly Working’s unexpected popularity in either his proposed sequel, Hardly Working Attacks Star Wars (?!) or an intriguing old folks home comedy intended to star a host of aging Hollywood greats which he once described as “a geriatric Animal House (1978). His eventual follow-up, the portmanteau sketch comedy Smorgasbord (1983) (also known as Cracking Up), was mostly ignored but his outstanding turn in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) initiated a run of cult film and stage appearances that won great acclaim.