Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in ‘Lenny’ (1974). Courtesy Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Nearly 50 years after his landmark Carnegie Hall performance, and 44 years since his drug-related death, Lenny Bruce still has the power to shock. And as long he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to look away from Elan Gale’s Looking for Lenny, a new documentary whose North American premiere opens this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7. But with an overdose of celebrity interviews, and a regrettable final third that makes tenuous connections to Don Imus to Michael Richards, the film feels more like a well-meaning term paper than a compelling portrait of a tortured genius — tortured, that is, by the establishment he mocked.
Some of the interviews do shed light on Bruce’s place in the pop pantheon. “If it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce, we wouldn’t have had Richard Pryor or George Carlin,” says comedian Rob Riggle. “And it’s usually the first guy through the breach who takes all the bullets.” Likewise, cultural agitator Paul Krassner reminds us that Bruce was an “activist, transforming horror into humor.” And Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, provides poignant memories of Bruce’s desperation toward the end of his life — and of her own unbearable grief at learning about his death.