Something’s wrong with Buddy Love. He doesn’t act like a professor. Meanwhile, Sherman Klump, heavyset but brilliant, feels that human companionship is passing him by. Still, he’s a professor and has the support of a major university—at least as long as he brings the grant money in. The Nutty Professor, a re-envisioning of the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, is instructive to watch. One of the immediately obvious things to those of us who’ve been professors, is that movie makers don’t really understand what it’s like. And it’s not just comedies—Indiana Jones doesn’t get it any more than Dean Richmond does. Academics who watch these films shake their heads, if they think about the presentation of their profession. Indeed, for being high profile, it is a job the public does not understand.
That’s not really what this post is about, however. Although it’s been a few years, I suspect The Nutty Professor still has some currency. In case I’m wrong, here’s the gist: it’s a modern, funny version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. An overweight professor invents a formula that leads to instant weight loss. The formula, however, also has side-effects, such as a boost in testosterone levels that leads to instability and violence. In the climactic scene of the movie, Eddie Murphy transforms back and forth from Sherman to Buddy while on stage at the alumni ball. Papa Klump, who has paid to attend, calls out, “Someone had better go and call the exorcist!”
Now, this is screwball comedy. Still, it reflects something that I’ve been struggling with in my current book—the public view of possession. Demons aren’t generally known for changing body mass indices. They’re after the soul, after all. Still, there’s an element of truth, according to church teaching, about what Papa Klump says—demons are bodily afflictions. Traditionally, they can’t impact a person’s soul. In fact, possession is not considered a sin, and those under demonic influence aren’t held responsible for sins they commit while under that influence. The soul is considered, unlike the physical body, something that cannot be “possessed.” I know not to take movies like this seriously, but they do contribute to the pool of public “knowledge” about possession. In this way, at least, it’s important to pay attention. Such films may not really comprehend what the lives of professors are like, but they do reflect, even if in a nutty way, what people believe.