Which Way Is Up? Review
It’s been said often enough that Richard Pryor’s finest cinematic achievements, and therefore his most lasting, were the concert films of his stand-up as opposed to those which required him to act. It’s not a case of him being a poor actor – witness his ‘straight’ roles in Greased Lightning, Blue Collar or Lost Highway - rather that the comedy he offered as a stand-up was very different to that seen in the Gene Wilder movies, Brewster’s Millions, say, or Superman III: if you want the real Richard Pryor then head for In Concert or Live at the Sunset Strip. With that said he wasn’t always shoehorned into family-orientated or mainstream roles when it came to comedy and Which Way Is Up? is one such instance. A remake of Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi, it was produced by Steve Krantz (who’d overseen Ralph Bakshi’s work during the Fritz the Cat/Heavy Traffic period) and if often really quite coarse, if ultimately very broad.
Interestingly Which Way Is Up? pre-empts Eddie Murphy by a number of years in offering up Pryor in three roles (though the old man make-up is clearly less advanced than it was by the time of The Nutty Professor and its sequel). Such characterisations perhaps hint at an acknowledgment of the mimicry which figured large in the comedian’s stand-up, though it’s equally likely that by having three Pryors the film is therefore allowed to make on off them all wide-eyed and innocent without giving the general impression of sanitizing its lead. But of course it’s the innocent who occupies most of the screentime and who Which Way Is Up? revolves entirely around. We see him unwittingly embroiled in the trade union movement, unwittingly foiling an assassination attempt, etc., etc. Plus there’s the run of knockabout comedic set-pieces in which he chases and secures the girl of his dreams, and the knockabout bedroom farce as he struggles to balance two women (the new girl and a previous relationship) without either knowing the full story.
It’s difficult to pin these various set-pieces onto a clear-cut narrative thread as Which Way Is Up? doesn’t really have one. Just when a plotline appears to be gaining prominence the film shoots off on some other tangent. It’s a scattershot approach that served, for example, Woody Allen well during the earlier days of his career, but here it simply comes across as undisciplined. For starters the humour is too broad to work over the entire picture and, more importantly, so broad that it often comes across as confused. The homophobia may perhaps be a sign of the times (and it could be argued that Which Way Is Up? loosely fits under the ‘blaxploitation’ remit given its predominantly black casting and Michael Schultz’s presence as director), yet the violence seems especially misplaced when we’re supposed to find Pryor (or rather the main Pryor) such a lovable goof. Similarly Which Way Is Up? feels like a film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to say: Pryor may eventually end up sticking it to ‘the man’ but satire seems like the last thing on its mind.
As to where the blame lies it’s certainly worth noting that the source material wasn’t of the greatest quality to begin with. Wertmüller was lavished with praise in the US during the seventies though her films now more often not reveal themselves to be facile and vaguely exploitative. Furthermore Schultz was hardly the director to counteract such flaws. His best works, Car Wash and Greased Lightning, rely respectively on a sprightly script by Joel Schumacher and the small fact that Melvin Van Peebles directed the vast majority. Otherwise his films were mostly held together by their soundtracks or other gimmicks: Cooley High, a kind of African-American Graffiti; the Beatles travesty of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band; the hip-hop of Krush Groove; The Last Dragon and its bizarre blend of mid-eighties Motown and fantastical martial arts. Each has its own cult-ish audience, however ironic, yet Which Way Is Up? is now pretty much forgotten and deservedly so as it simply doesn’t hang together. Only Pryor offers any potential area of interest, but then there’s far better to sample out there.
A fairly rudimentary disc from Fabulous with a functional transfer and minimal extras. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is adhered to and anamorphically enhanced whilst the original stereo is similarly in place. The slightly soft print is generally clean, with odd moments of damage and occasional grain, but nothing overly distracting. Likewise the soundtrack, though neither stands out as especially outstanding. Optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are nowhere to be seen and the extras amount to production notes, brief bios for the major players and a gallery of posters, lobby cards and still.