As he indelibly illustrated in the otherwise-dreadful Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask), Gene Wilder is likely the world's only actor capable of conveying innocence, vulnerability, and pathos while playing a character locked in a destructive sexual relationship with a sheep. The elfin, otherworldly qualities of Wilder's doe-eyed man-child persona can be alternately endearing and disturbing, especially given its often pre-adolescent conception of sex.
A lesson on stunted sexuality masquerading as a broad, sentimental romantic comedy, 1977's The World's Greatest Lover stars Wilder as an unemployable, sexually rapacious Midwestern loser who heads to early Hollywood intent on becoming the next Rudolph Valentino. Carol Kane lends her equally expressive eyes and poignantly childlike presence to the role of Wilder's wife, a swooning dreamer infatuated by Valentino and increasingly alienated by her husband's abrasiveness. Wilder seems to have conceived of his protagonist as a lovable eccentric, but with his endless assortment of nervous tics and temperamental outbursts, he comes off as emotionally abusive and mentally ill. Wilder's film wastes Kane's terrific performance by combining the most self-indulgent tendencies of Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis in a film that plays like a series of blackout skits or a collection of sputtering, vaguely connected one-reelers.
In that respect, directorial neophyte Wilder seems to benefit from the discipline and structure of genre filmmaking in 1975's The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, a likeable, accomplished Arthur Conan Doyle homage in the mid-'70s Mel Brooks mold. Once again playing a character lingering in the shadow of a legend, Wilder stars as the legendary shamus' equally sharp sibling opposite Marty Feldman's Watson surrogate. Madeline Kahn steals scenes as a neurotic ingénue who, as she eloquently says of herself early in the film, is "simultaneously funny and sad." Like his mentor Brooks, Wilder displays a palpable affection for the material he's spoofing. His whimsical directorial debut radiates promise that was never to be fulfilled. In that regard, it's a lot like Wilder's acting career, which began brilliantly, then faded into insignificance.
Key features: Wilder commentaries on both films.