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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Way… Way Out’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, no matter who’s telling the jokes, the material just ain’t funny, at all

Way… Way Out (1966)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Gordon Douglas

You can’t really discuss American comedy without Jerry Lewis. Love him or hate him, he’s hard to ignore, thanks to the manic energy and daring self-depreciation he brought to every film he starred in.

Well, all right, almost every film…

Our movie takes place in the far-off world of 1989. (The film refers in the script to its setting as “the turn of the next century,” with the 1989 date stated by the film’s lobby poster.) According to the movie, not much had changed by the time the film opens, although we do get a news program that shows us that civil rights legislation is still being stalled by white Southern senators and announces that “elder statesman Richard Nixon” is coming out of retirement to reunite the Republican party.

One thing they do have in 1989 is weather stations on the moon, continually staffed by crews who observe and issue warnings about inclement weather forming back on Earth. Apparently in this future, the Nimbus program was abandoned for a far more costly and labor-intensive alternative, but anyways… And there’s still an active space race going on between the US and USSR, who both have crews on the moon who are supposed to be watching the planet, not each other.

In fact, one of the American astronauts, Schmidlap (Howard Morris), went way beyond watching the cosmonauts; his serial sexual harassment of a female Russian stationed on the moon causes a serious diplomatic incident, while Schmidlpa’s bullying of his colleague Hoffman (Dennis Weaver) shows him to be a hazard for American astronauts as well.

The space agency, NAWA, takes dramatic action and removes Schmidlap from the moon and charges him with assault comes up with a few BS explanations about how lonely the moon is, and announces that the next team to go will be a married couple. The head of the agency, Harold Quanset (Robert Morley), gets some unhappy news as he tries to hold a news conference where he puts the spin on the incident: the wedded couple, Ted (James Brolin) and Peggy (Linda Harrison), are fighting bitterly and on the verge of divorce.

A quick review of NAWA’s personnel files doesn’t offer much relief: The next two astronauts in the rotation are Peter Mattemore (Lewis) and Eileen Forbes (Connie Stevens). Neither of them know each other or want to get rushed into an arranged marriage, so as a result NAWA gives up on the stupid idea and starts agency-wide sensitivity training orders them to get hitched and be on the pad to go to the moon to relieve the other crew. Mattemore is a confirmed bachelor who’s not willing to stop playing the game, and Forbes would rather do the science than do the business, even though we get a few scattered moments when Forbes suggests that she doesn’t think with just her head, ifyouknowwhatImean…

NAWA as a fallback comes up with a replacement for Forbes, Esther Davenport (Bobo Lewis), which makes Mattemore the playboy shiver as he considers who he’ll be married to for the sake of his country. This leads him to go to Forbes’ place just before liftoff, where a plan is hatched:

The two have a very abbreviated ceremony on the elevator ride to the gangway, and start their “married” life on the moon getting Schmidlap hustled aboard the return rocket. They settle for their first night together on the moon, but soon have a fight that gets interrupted by a knock at the airlock:

Cosmonaut Slobova (Anita Ekberg), the Russian who Schmidlap was harassing, has a lot more to reveal as she talks to the Americans. For one, she’s not married to her lunar colleague Igor (Dick Shawn), but they are “co-workers with benefits.” They also like to party as much as possible, with Igor bringing as much life and spirit to the shindig as he can.

The same can be said of Shawn, the only actor in the ensemble that’s willing to push this ridiculous concept as far as it can go. He certainly seems the most energetic compared with Lewis, who spends most of his time only doing double-takes as other characters drop zingers. A Jerry Lewis that’s more Buddy Love than Professor Kelp tends to be harder to watch, and here Lewis doesn’t even make that darker persona of his shine.

Speaking of the “banality of evil”: The whole script reads like it was hashed out by a group of thirteen-year-old boys who just raided their dads’ Playboy stash and let their minds and mouths run freely. The jokes about sex make up most of the screenplay and range from the jejune to the disturbing.

The fact that this was made during a time when Lewis was sexually harassing all his female leads, according to Vanity Fair in 2014, adds a whole new patina of disgust to the film. We can count small blessings that Stevens states in the article that she observed some of the disturbing elements of Lewis’ dark side, but did not go through what Karen Sharpe, Renée Taylor, and Hope Holiday had.

With Douglas’ flat and detached direction of a script that celebrated the horrible behavior its star regularly engaged in, this was never going to age well. The fact that the film was a financial disappointment on its release was a harbinger for how it would be remembered years later.

This has the potential of being the worst film Jerry Lewis was in, although we can’t state that with certainty until The Day the Clown Cried gets liberated. Even if you can cite a film of his that’s more disturbing and/or unwatchable, you’d do yourself a favor to put as much space between you and it as possible…



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