Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2015)
For a brief period, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor looked like they would become one of the all-time great comedy duos. They scored a nice hit with 1976’s Silver Streak and followed it up with another big flick via 1980’s Stir Crazy.
And that was about it. They wouldn’t work together again for nine years, and 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil was both a critical and commercial disappointment. That still made it superior to 1991’s Another You, which was a total bomb. Heck, I don’t even remember that film’s existence – I thought the Pryor/Wilder string ended with Evil.
Despite that, it’s fun to revisit Stir Crazy to see the pair together. Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) struggle to succeed in New York, where they aspire to showbiz prominence but find themselves stuck in menial jobs. After they get fired from their gigs, Skip and Harry decide to drive to LA and attempt to make it big there.
Along the way, their van breaks down in the Sun Belt and leaves them stranded since the repairs use up much of their money. To bolster their bottom line, they get a job as dancing mascots at a local bank.
This doesn’t go well. During a break, criminals take their costumes and use them a robbery. This means that Skip and Harry get arrested for the crime and sent to prison. We follow their efforts to cope with life in the joint and their attempts to get out of there.
This viewing acts as a real walk down memory lane, as I’m pretty sure I’d not seen Crazy since its theatrical run 35 years ago. Although I was a mere 13 at the time, my dad allowed me to see “R”-rated flicks, and I know we took in a screening of Crazy. Did I like it? I think so, but I really can’t remember much about it after all these years.
Watching it today, I can figure out why I don’t boast strong recollections of that screening: it’s not an especially memorable movie, and it’s definitely not one that’s aged well. Virtually everything about the film reminds us of its era, and not in a positive way. We feel the late 70s seep through every frame, and that dated feel creates problems.
Probably the movie’s biggest concern stems from its narrative. To call Stir Crazy meandering would be an understatement, as it includes entire sequences that don’t need to exist for dramatic purposes. For instance, there’s a fight at a bar that does nothing to serve the story and could’ve been lost without any damage to the movie.
This makes Crazy often come across more as a collection of comedic bits than as a coherent narrative. We find scads of gags that don’t connect to the plot; they just exist as islands unto themselves. I can tolerate a little of this, but when the non-essential jokes dominate, that becomes a problem.
I might not mind as much if the movie didn’t come with so many organic opportunities for comedy. Crazy could’ve used its basic story for laughs in a way that it doesn’t, and I don’t understand this choice. Why go for extraneous comic bits when the film could easily fit material that serves the narrative?
I also find it perplexing that Crazy misuses Pryor. Though co-billed with Wilder, Pryor really doesn’t get a lot to do, as Wilder’s story and comedic moments dominate. I like Wilder and obviously know he can carry a movie, but why cast Richard Pryor and then leave him on the sidelines so much of the time?
Even so, the Wilder/Pryor combo manages to produce some laughs. We just don’t get as many chuckles as we would expect, and the messiness of the movie’s plot/pacing make this an erratic pleasure at best.
Trivia: we find Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams here, though neither interacts in Stir Crazy. They’d have a lot more time together two years later in Poltergeist.
Casting oddity: As the warden, Barry Corbin refers to Gene Wilder as a “kid”. That seems strange since Wilder’s seven years older than Corbin – and it’s weird to hear anyone call the then-pushing-50 Wilder a “kid”.