Writing about Stir Crazy, and the comedic genius that was Gene Wilder alongside Richard Pryor, makes me, literally, stir crazy. I get fidgety and continually write and delete lines. Bursts of excitement meet brick, hyperbole-breaking walls. It's like being pumped full of caffeine and sugar, then thrown inside a little padded cell. It is, quite simply, difficult to appropriately intermingle discussion of the talent that is Wilder and Pryor, and the ways in which they are shackled by their cinematic fare.
I adore Wilder and Pryor together. In fact, to me they are the best comedic duo Hollywood has ever produced. Even a mere still of the duo sends me into gleeful memories. Stir Crazy should have been great. It featured the stars of Silver Streak, and had them hitting the road for what seemed like prime comedic fare. It was Sidney Poitier's second stab at a comedic duo, after he directed himself alongside Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night (which Pryor was also involved with), Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of Action.
But great potential didn't lead to a great final product.
At first, Stir Crazy is just plain wonderful. Gene Wilder is Skip, a playwright who spends his days as a bumbling store detective, while Richard Pryor is Harry, a struggling actor who works as a waiter and doesn't know how to keep his weed safe. When both lose their jobs on the same day, at almost the precisely same time, Skip gets the grand idea that they should leave New York and head for Los Angeles. It's a sign! He's tired of the callous coldness of the city's inhabitants. He hates that he is the only one willing to connect with other people. Somehow, he gets the more level-headed and hands-off Harry to agree, and they wave g'bye to New York and set off in a dilapidated old Dodge.
At this point, the premise is perfect for Wilder and Pryor. It allows them to interact with many different types of people, and drive each other crazy in the confines of their car as they make it across the country. There's nothing better than the two just doing what comes to mind. But this is not the type of "stir crazy" scribe Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash) was going for. Their ride breaks down in a small town, and their money-making venture backfires when, after performing as woodpeckers for the local bank, their costumes are stolen and used by bad guys to rob the very same bank. The pair are arrested and sentenced to 125 years in prison, because the judge thinks they are the worst type of criminal, beyond rehabilitation.
It's not quite what the film's start suggests, but we play along. It allows us to enjoy their reaction to sentencing, Skip's frustration with the rough prison folk, and the introduction to Grossberger. However, then an entirely new plot descends, with a warden and an inter-prison rodeo that makes Skip discover he's a natural cowboy, and gives the duo and their new friends a chance for escape. Look up just about any review of the film, and it will rave about Wilder and Pryor's talents before ruing the way the story plays out, and how it abruptly becomes a convoluted affair that extracts all the comedy from the piece. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review years ago: "long, complicated courses of action do not necessarily suit themselves to comedy, and when the characters get absorbed in them they're not free to react in comic ways."
Their comedy was in delivery and improvisation, and Wilder and Pryor were pros at taking simple, or sometimes lifeless writing and making it pop. Let's face it -- even the first moments are funny because it's Wilder and Pryor improvising and being comedically natural. Not everyone could've pulled it off. But there's only so much they can do when the focus is taken from them, and put on this over-the-top rodeo idea. Though there's no rumors of a huge re-write, it feels like a studio head hated the aimlessness whimsy of the film, and insisted on putting a rodeo story in there, 'cause, you know, Wilder was good on a horse in Blazing Saddles.
This is a case where story kills the story. No one gives a rat's ass about a rodeo. It's not worth the first funny moments of Skip's gleeful ride in the warden's office. By the end, when the best of cinematic luck falls at their feet, it's as if even Poitier and Friedman could care less as well, eschewing the law and offering a "wrap-up" where no one cares if they have escaped -- it's irrelevant because they were innocent to begin with!
Stir Crazy stopped the duo's collaborations for almost a decade, until they returned with See No Evil, Hear No Evil, worth it for the ridiculousness of a deaf Gene and blind Richard trying to communicate. But unfortunately, their on-screen hurrahs ended with the fourth and worst film, 1991's Another You. Both of the men were struggling with health problems, and though only a handful of years after the Evil, it was ravaged. (Maybe this was due to their health distractions, or perhaps the fact that Peter Bogdanovich was fired after weeks of location filming in NY, replaced, and the script completely rewritten and shot in Los Angeles.)
Nevertheless, there's nothing like the comedic reality Wilder and Pryor brought to their roles, and how easy it was to see them as life-long friends. To end this on a positive note, here's Skip and Harry getting "bad" to protect themselves once they're arrested:
- What's your favorite Wilder/Pryor film?
- Is there any way the rodeo twist could've worked, or was it simply too much for the film?
- What do you make of the films Sidney Poitier directed, compared to what he starred in?
- Another You was the last film Gene Wilder acted in. Should he return to the big screen? If so, with whom and how?
Next Week's Film: Hot Fuzz | Add it to your Netflix queue
Last Week's Film: Jules and Jim