Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Insights for Life from The Nutty Professor (1963)

I remember once speaking with an elderly woman on the way out of church.  The congregation had just finished singing Amazing Grace, and she commented to me that this hymn seemed to her as something of inestimable depth.  She made this comment:
"Every time we sing Amazing Grace, I notice something new in it that I had not seen before!"
While I was unable to concur with her regarding this hymn (everything I ever got out of it seemed evident to me on first hearing), I do feel that way about the Jerry Lewis film, The Nutty Professor (1963).  I watched it again last night, after an interval of perhaps eight years.

One thing that had not impacted me as much on earlier viewings was the way in which bodybuilding, as it later developed, eventually answered all the yearnings of the weakling Professor Julius Kelp.  In the movie, before he invents his magical androgenic formula, he tries bodybuilding for six months.  He joins Vic Tanny's gym and begins to lift weights.

But, alas, Professor Kelp is not very gifted at bodybuilding. He begins his regimen at a weight of 153 pounds, and ends his six-month effort at a weight of 151. It is then that he turns to chemistry to make him the man that he wants to be. It was no different in real life, for during this same time period, bodybuilders were discovering the wonders of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids (AAS).

That's on the physical side of things.  But the Nutty Professor is much more about spiritual and inner things.  The Julius Kelp / Buddy Love dichotomy is fascinating.  It sets up for us a choice between Professor Kelp (weak, ineffectual, debilitatingly verbose, self-effacing, self-doubting, inept, awkward, clumsy) and his lounge lizard couterpart Buddy Love (arrogant, rude, self-absorbed, narcissistic, strong, confident, talented, smooth, suave).

To be honest, I've often found myself vacillating between these two poles.  Sometimes, I am very confident in my talent and usefulness, and even in my virtue.  But then I fail at something rather badly, or fully notice a previous failure for the first time.  And suddenly I am converted from my Buddy Love mode to my Julius Kelp mode.  I become apologetic, self-doubting, ineffectual, and self-effacing.  It lasts a while, after which the temporary humility (if that's even what it is) wears off, and I begin to be confident and arrogant again.

I find that weekly church attendance can regularize this oscillation.  It is necessary, in approaching the weekly eucharistic Sacrament, to humble oneself.  But sometimes, on Monday morning, all bets are off.  I roar to work in my fast car in full, blazing Buddy Love Mode.  So that while weekly participation in the Mass may control the periodicity of the fluctuations, it seems not to eliminate them.  I find myself to be either Professor Kelp or Buddy Love most of the time.

At some point, though, one gets tired of both these characters.  At the end of the film, Kelp's student and Love's admirer, Stella Purdy, marries Professor Kelp.  But she makes sure to bring a few bottles of his magic formula with her to the honeymoon.  She wants the option of choosing which guy to be with.  Each has certain advantages,  but also glaring disadvantages.

There must be a third way.  And there is.  It is not (as G. K. Chesterton would certainly tell us) an averaging of the personalities of Dr. Kelp and Buddy Love.  It is holding the best features of each in dynamic tension.  And this third way is (do I even need to tell you?) Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, like Buddy Love, is subject to control by no other man.  He is strong, confident, and teaches as one with authority.  He is able to silence fools and send bullies packing.  But, like Professor Kelp, he is humble and engaged in humble service of others.  He is a man who not only possesses authority, but is one under authority.  One passage that points out this dual role is John 10:17-18:
The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.
Jesus Christ has the strength and authority, the confident manhood, of Buddy Love, raised to the umpteenth power.  But he uses it in humble service to humanity.  Those who would resolve the Kelp/Love dilemma in their own lives must seek the way of Christ.