"Is this what you want? You want to do a number eight with Rudolph Valentino?"
Gene Wilder is an icon, one of the true living legends of comedy. His total dominance of comedy films in the 1970s is unbelievable: Willy Wonka, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silver Streak, Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The Frisco Kid. I defy you to name me someone with more classics under his belt than this man. One of his least seen and talked about films is 1977's The World's Greatest Lover, which he also wrote and directed. There's a reason for this that's plainly obvious once you see the film. It's just not very good.
There's some very funny stuff in it, and it starts out with a bang. In fact, I would say the first thirty minutes are damn good. It just gets sidetracked so quickly and so drastically, it literally stops being funny for virtually the last thirty minutes. Wilder's first directorial effort, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, benefitted from the presence of three other genius comedians, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise & Marty Feldman. Here, he has DeLuise in only three or four scenes, and Carol Kane, and while Carol Kane is great, she's no Madeline Kahn, and Wilder without a foil like Marty Feldman just isn't as good. I guess the point I'm getting at is that Gene Wilder is infinitely better when he's surrounded by outstanding talent.
Wilder plays Rudy Valentine, a baker from late 1920s Milwaukee who is taking his wife Annie (Kane) to California for an open audition at Rainbow Studios to find the next big silent film star. His wife Annie is obsessed with the big star of the day, Rudolph Valentino, and unbeknownst to Rudy, she's going to leave him when they get to Hollywood to go find Valentino.
The wild, manic, unhinged Wilder that you may love from the last half of Young Frankenstein is on full display in the first half hour. His performance is deliriously over-the-top, and it works so well that I never wanted it to end. Once Annie leaves him, however, he becomes sad and withdrawn, and the film just doesn't regain its footing. It's funny to me as the role of Annie starts out as a fairly nominal character, but he clearly put a lot of love and attention into writing her arc, much more so than he did with Madeline Kahn's character in AOSHSB, yet he couldn't land her for the role for one reason or another. I'm not saying Madeline Kahn would have saved the film, I just find it curious that the role is so much better than many of the ones he'd written for her that it's a shame he couldn't get her for the film.
Dom DeLuise is hysterical as the head of Rainbow Studios, and reminds you just how good he could be when he was on his game. Granted he doesn't really have many great scenes here, like the "Why don't we all drink some very sexy wine" scene in AOSHSB, but he's still a remarkable comedic force and a joy to watch.
Wilder has a very clear love of the silent film era, and this is his love letter to that time period, I just wish the tonal shifts weren't so obvious. The film is a knockdown farce for the first half hour, with his mishap at the bakery in the beginning, to the flooding of his hotel suite, but then the film becomes pure melodrama, drowning in, not necessarily self-indulgence, but it's a definite shift away from the slapstick of the first third of the film. It's a shame that Wilder didn't trust himself enough in one direction or the other. Either he didn't trust himself enough to make a straight melodrama, or he couldn't avoid the tropes of that genre and ended up getting bogged down in them.
Either way, the film is uneven and never better than it is in the first thirty minutes, so I would say it's only essential viewing for Wilder completists. He made much better films and I would seek those out first, but if you're a fan like I am, you're going to watch this one way or another. Just don't get your hopes up that the entire film is going to be as funny as the first half hour. It drops off fast and never looks back (except for DeLuise's double take near the end which was hilarious). If nothing else, just bask in the company of one of the great screen comedians that's ever lived. There are a lot worse ways to spend ninety minutes.