Richard Pryor Collection Review
There will be better ways to remember Richard Pryor but there will be few released quite so quickly as this one. Four films - one a classic, two not bad and one an odd choice for a box set - released not three months after Pryor's death on December 10, 2005, this comes in advance of the books, albums and documentaries that are bound to make it to the shops in the coming months. None of it, though, captures the essence of a man who radically changed comedy, whose strong language excluded him from network television, who tried to rid himself of a cocaine addiction by setting himself on fire but who became an emblem of black pride for his success, blinding people to his colour whilst not denying his roots in the ghettos. His act may not have any finer moment than when he stopped using 'nigger' in his act after a trip to Africa, saying that it was a wretched word that did neither him or those he was describing any justice. Motherfucker would, though, remain.
His influence is felt strongest on the comedians that rejected the homely, folksy routines of the likes of Bill Cosby and, instead, followed Pryor's ghetto culture, which would find itself updated with Death Row's self-professed 'gangsta shit' years later. But where Tupac Shakur honed his act in drama classes and 50 Cent is too just damn stupid to do much but ape the moves of his predecessors, Richard Pryor was of the ghetto and his act was as raw and as confrontational as that implies. Like Lenny Bruce before him and Bill Hicks after, Pryor was often brutally honest about his upbringing, which included his growing up in his grandmother's brothel where his mother Gertude worked as a prostitute, but always carried the audience with him, even when discussing his childhood abuse. They might have been shocked but his onstage character - a half-assed pimp as much out to take on the world as he was confused by it - was enough for Hollywood to come calling and to get Pryor's name in the movies, including such films as the four included here.
The earliest film here is 1976's Car Wash, which stars Pryor as Daddy Rich, founder of the Church of Divine Economic Spirituality and who has a brief cameo after his gold limousine pulls into the car was for a polish and valeting. Pryor's part comes halfway through the movie and he's been and gone in a little over five minutes, leaving this Joel Schumacher-scripted film as something of an oddity. Accompanied by the disco-era song of the same name, Car Wash fits a single shift at such an establishment into its pedestrian ninety-seven minutes, in which black activist Duane (Bill Duke), car wash manager Mr B (Sully Boyar) and brashly upfront homosexual Lindy (Antonio Fargas) try and get through the day without incident. Not helping in their quest are a suspected bomber (Irwin Corey), Daddy Rich and Miss Beverly Hills (Lorraine Gary), a hysterical woman who's violently ill son forces her to call in at the wash. It's an odd film, neither funny nor particularly interesting, more an of-its-time movie that makes more of an urban car wash than a film could ever sustain, even one as short as this.
The best film in the set is Stir Crazy from 1980, in which Wilder and Pryor play Skip Donahoe and Harry Monroe, two hopeless New Yorkers who head west in search of the sun, of wide open fields and of beautiful women. Winding up in Glenboro, they take a job at a bank, where they have to dress up as a couple of woodpeckers to promote the bank's new services. When a pair of criminals steal their costumes and rob the bank, they're arrested and sentenced for 125 years in jail, where Skip reveals a talent for rodeo riding that not even he knew about. It just so happens that the all-prison rodeo is coming up and Warden Walter Beatty (Barry Corbin) hopes that his new find will represent Glenboro prison, allowing him to settle a score against his old rival, Warden Henry Sampson (Nicolas Coster). Problem is that Skip doesn't want to ride rodeo so Beatty sends out his deputy, Ward Wilson (Craig T. Nelson), to make sure that Skip knows just what's at stake, leaving poor Harry to bear the brunt of the Beatty's interpretation of the penal code.
Stir Crazy is as thinly plotted as one of those episodes of The A-Team where the gang both break into prison and break out again, solving a crime whilst detained at the pleasure of America's equivalent of Her Majesty. What it is, though, is enough of a story on which to hang a series of great gags, from their superbad rolling into the holding cell - "We bad...uh huh, real bad!" - through a misguided attempt to wear the same pair of trousers to the warden's attempts to convince Skip Donahoe to ride in the rodeo, including putting them in a cell with psychotic axe-murderer Grossberger. Best of all is Richard Pryor being admitted to the hospital prison to have his appendix removed - apparently it grew back - only to have the patient in the next bed warn him about the Korean doctor who, being supposed to remove a hernia, actually cut off a testicle. Said doctor soon calls at Pryor's bedside and the sight of his character running out of the prison hospital had this viewer actually crying with laughter. It's quite obviously the best film here and it's one of Pryor's best roles, much more deserving of being in a better box set than this one, one that would have included Silver Streak.
Next up is Walter Hill's 1985 version of Brewster's Millions - the seventh film adaptation of the story - in which Pryor plays Montgomery Brewster, a small-time baseball player who inherits $300m from a deceased relative on the condition that he spends $30m within the next thirty days without telling a soul of the reason for his profligacy. Assisting Brewster - or rather, in his ignorance, blindly hindering him - is Spike Nolan (John Candy), who turns around a lifelong run of bad luck by being able to make millions with remarkable ease just when Brewster wants to be ride of it. As the thirty days draws to a close, Brewster finds himself sick of spending money, something that his dead relative had planned on, and it's a race to clear his account of assets and of the £30m without anyone's suspicions being raised, least of all Angela Drake (Lonette McKee), who Brewster is falling in love with.
Finally, there's Arthur Hiller's See No Evil, Hear No Evil from 1989, the third but not final pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in which they play the deaf Dave Lyons and the blind Wally Karew. Apart, they struggle through life - Karew more than Lyons as he refuses to let anyone know that he's blind - but when Wally's bookie is shot at Dave's newsstand, they find, in spite of their innocence, that they're the chief suspects. In spite of the police not believing them, they're sure that they witnessed the crime - Wally heard the shot, Dave saw the shooter as she left - and with the help of a passing pro-Iranian protest, they break out of the precinct en route to clearing their name. First, they've got to find the killers - Eve (Joan Severance) and Kirgo (Kevin Spacey) - as well as who they're working for and why it seems that a little coin is worth so much, particularly when it looks to be a fake.
Neither as good as Wilder and Pryor's previous collaborations, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, nor anywhere near the best of either comedian when apart, See No Evil, Hear No Evil is not without laughs. Nowhere is it funnier than in Dave and Wally's early fight on the street, when, standing near one another, Wally takes Dave's threats as being directed at him and fist fights an empty space where he believes Dave to be standing. If you can avoid any feelings of guilt over laughing at disabilities, See No Evil, Hear No Evil isn't bad but the two stars don't have that complementary relationship that made Stir Crazy work so well. There is, though, one fantastic sight gag midway through the film that involves a fake gun, a nude Joan Severance and an erect penis that's of the did-I-just-see-that kind of joke.
Together, these four films make for an odd set - only Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil are actually as funny as you'd hope a comedy would be, Brewster's Millions hasn't aged at all well and Car Wash is more social drama than comedy. Stir Crazy aside, Superman III is generally a better film than those presented here and that's really only memorable for knowing that Richard Pryor picked up a cheque for $4m to star in it and that he described it as, "a piece of shit" before it even opened. Pryor's legacy is much greater than that presented here and although you'd never guess it from Hollywood's appropriation of his safer side, he had a fine time in the movies. If there's anything in here that he ought to be remembered by, it's his playing bad in lock-up. Growing up in the ghetto, he's surely playing it with more experience than is hinted at, which means that he was probably a better actor than is usually given credit for. It's a pity that this box set is not one that shows that side of him, more his easy telling of a gag that, from another writers's hand, is not the best of Pryor.
The transfers of three of the four films - Car Wash, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil are reasonable but are hardly shining examples of what can be done with DVD. Of the three, Car Wash stands out as being the best, with a gritty, homegrown look that comes across well and with a level of detail and a richness to the colours that flatters the film whilst never distracting from it. Brewster's Millions, though, has a rotten picture - it's constantly moving in the frame, it's both soft and too dark and the colour balance looks to have too much red in the image. Add to that a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan picture and an obvious amount of edge enhancement and it's clearly the dud in a set that isn't, otherwise, that bad.
All four films come with stereo soundtracks that, again, aren't bad, but Brewster's Millions remains the one that stands out as being the one that slipped out without an inspection from the quality control department. None are great but Brewster's Millions has noticeable background noise, sounds harsh and isn't as sharp as the other films in the set.
The entire box set produces nothing more than a Trailer (1m18s) and a Behind-The-Scenes Feature (8m02s) on See No Evil, Hear No Evil and a Trailer (1m26s) on Brewster's Millions. The lack of a feature on Richard Pryor demonstrates that his ragbag collection has little to do with the passing of Richard Pryor and more to do with turning a quick profit off his death.
In an advert in the latest version of Total Film, Stir Crazy appears in a sale for £5 and given that it's the best film in this set by some margin, that sounds like a much better deal than this collection of films, which are related only by Richard Pryor who hardly appears in one of them. If you want to remember Richard Pryor, Stir Crazy features one of the best of his film roles but, like many comedians, it's on album that Pryor's best work is at and that's where he ought to be remembered. Start there and catch up with the films on the way, including these ones but probably not like this.