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I, the Jerry

Is there anyone, save the amateur rappers over his show's end credits, willing to admit that they like Jerry Springer? Somebody somewhere must, considering the enormous success of his syndicated TV talk show. But whether his devoted audience is likely to head down to the multiplex for a feature-length dose is another question.

I saw Springer's movie debut, Jerry Springer in Ringmaster--in which, in a stretch, he plays a former TV news anchor and minor politician named "Jerry Farrelly" who hosts a talk show known for its sensationalistic topics, its violence and the low socioeconomic status of most of its guests--at a free preview screening that was barely half full. They had a hard time even giving away a Jerry Springer movie.

Tell you what--I'm willing to admit it. I like Jerry Springer a lot. Don't misunderstand; I dislike The Jerry Springer Show, not because it's a parade of underclass eccentrics defiantly airing their tawdry sexual exploits--that I could enjoy--but because it's tedious. Every few seconds the guests, thinking they're giving the audience what it wants--and what some segment of it indeed must want--lunge at each other so violently that bouncers must come and pry them apart. Or they start spewing torrents of obscenities at each other, all of which have to be bleeped. Or they flash the audience, which must likewise be censored. No one's point of view gets revealed, and the results are soon boringly repetitive.

But Springer himself, with his warm, sensible, sympathetic, nonjudgmental persona, is very likable. Most of what's so odd about The Jerry Springer Show comes from the jarring contrast between this guy, who comes off as such a sweet mensch, and the explosive craziness over which he presides, and which, one must assume, he deliberately foments.

It's a dichotomy of which Springer is plainly aware. The poster for Ringmaster is a big close-up of his face. His brow is bandaged, he's holding his head in his hands, and he has an appalled look on his face. Similarly, in the film, we are repeatedly given cut-aways from the pandemonium taking place on the stage of "The Jerry Show" to Jerry queasily cringing as he watches. The suggestion that it's somehow all out of his hands is disingenuous--and it's the least appealing aspect of Ringmaster. Jerry, after all, is a man who sets friends and lovers and family members at each other's throats, and then comes on at the end to offer a concise, compassionate "final thought" before wrapping up with "Take care of yourselves, and each other."

Surprisingly, though, it's not all there is to the movie. Directed by Neil Abramson from a script by Jon Bernstein, Ringmaster is poky and clunkily edited, but it explores its subject with a good deal more complexity than, say, Private Parts. Betty Thomas' Hollywood-style bio-pic of Howard Stern was a smooth, enjoyable picture--a much slicker piece of work than the Springer film--but it was also a gratuitous whitewash, an unbecoming bid for respectability from someone who should reject respectability.

Private Parts was content to be a conventional rags-to-riches show-biz story. Ringmaster, to its credit, looks at the seamier side of media from a different angle--that of the audience. It's as if Abramson and Bernstein began with and set out to answer the questions that hand-wringing, middle-class op-ed writers, absurdly convinced that the show is somehow a sign of civilization's decline, ask about Springer's guests: "Who are these people?" and "Why would they agree to talk about their lurid private lives on national television?" Pointedly, the first shot of Ringmaster takes in a Florida trailer park.

Living in one trailer are Angel (Jaime Pressly), a slatternly 19-year-old hotel maid, her young mother Connie (Molly Hagan), and Connie's layabout husband Rusty (Michael Dudikoff), with whom, of course, Angel is having an affair. Next door is Willie (Ashley Holbrook), Angel's fiance with whom she's never had sex. Connie already has a guest shot on the Jerry show in mind; she tells Angel and Rusty she'll be out late so that she can walk in on them in bed.

Connie strides to the next trailer and has sex with the slow-witted Willie, partially for revenge, but mostly, one guesses, to sweeten the story for The Jerry Show's call screeners. It works, and when they get the call from the show telling them that they'll be flown to L.A. and put up in a nice hotel, Angel and Connie squeal and hug each other like schoolgirls who've won a dream date.

Ringmaster also follows another set of guests, three girlfriends (Wendy Raquel Robinson, Tangie Ambrose and Nicki Micheaux) from Detroit, all of whom have been "dogged" by the same studly young man (Michael Jai White). They, too, put aside their differences for the sake of their moment in the sun--all of the guests know that they need the cooperation of their betrayers and rivals to meet the show's standards for drama. When Rusty, seeing the villain role he's been cast to play, storms out of the hotel in a huff the night before the taping, Angel and Connie are crushed, not at the personal loss but at the recognition that their segment has been weakened.

The various sets of guests meet and intermingle while enjoying Jerry's hospitality, and other characters are stirred into the mix as well, including some of the show's staffers. The result is an unexpectedly lively, often raunchy sex comedy that manages to cover a lot of ground. There's commentary on the class (and racial) snobbery that's at least part of the objection to the show, but there's also an acknowledgement of the show's exploitative dimension. There are bittersweet moments along with the scenes of brawling and women French kissing each other and angry lovers trash-talking. There's genuinely good comic acting, particularly by Hagan and Pressly.

Though he's top-billed, Springer's role is actually fairly minor. We get a few a behind-the-scenes glimpses of the show's operation and of Jerry's personal reservations about what he does. We even see him in bed with a woman, although who she is (groupie? main squeeze?) is unclear. What is clear from Jerry Springer's honest, modest performance is what a kick doing the show is for him.

Springer used to be the mayor of Cincinnati; now he's virtually a symbol of disreputability in mass media, and though it embarrasses him, it's too profitable--and maybe too sexy--to give up. Responding to his paternal warmth, women flirt with him constantly, and though his expression is pained, he doesn't seem entirely to mind. You can bet that, at the end of the day, worrying about whether the potholes in Cincinnati streets were filled wasn't nearly this much fun.

More important, Abramson and the actors make a plausible case for what doing the show means to the guests: not just the brief star treatment, but also the implication--which people of that social status are unlikely to get anywhere else--that their stories matter, that they're worth putting on TV. This, after all, is the ultimate currency of importance in our society. The irony is that all this runs deeper, in human terms, than anything I've ever seen on The Jerry Springer Show.

Jerry Springer in Ringmaster
Directed by Neil Abramson; with Jerry Springer.
Rated


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