Stir Crazy (1980, dir. Sidney Poitier)
Stir Crazy is the second collaboration between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. This time, they are brought together by actor/director Sidney Poitier. The premise has the men as friends and roommates burnt out from life in New York City. They set out for the American Southwest where Wilder promises they will live a free and happy life. However, they end up framed for a bank robbery and receive a sentence of 125 years. Life is prison quickly drives them nutty, and they find a possible escape when it turns out that Wilder is a natural for the rodeo. The prison warden has a tournament coming up and plans to use Wilder to break his losing streak.
Since Silver Streak, life for Wilder and Pryor has been busy. Wilder has made The World’s Greatest Lover, inspired by a Fellini film, and The Frisco Kid, a Western that made Harrison Ford his co-star. Both films were considered significant failures at the box office. Pryor had two more successful comedy albums and starred in Car Wash, some forgettable comedies, and in Paul Schrader’s (Taxi Driver) drama Blue Collar. The comedian has also suffered a heart attack in 1977 but seemed just to double down on drug consumption which led to reportedly unprofessional behavior in being late the set of Stir Crazy. There was a lot of tension behind the scenes between Poitier and Pryor, and it can be felt a bit on the screen.
Stir Crazy is a pretty major disaster of a film. Silver Streak was a very tightly written and plotted, while Stir Crazy plays it way too loose and gives its two leads way too many scenes to mug and improvise in. There are multiple instances where Wilder especially is encouraged to just riff, and they fall flat in a huge way. His character mainly feels all over the place, in some moments being a naive doof and in others a Bugs Bunny-esque trickster. It becomes impossible near the end to know when he is genuine and when he is messing with the prison staff. There are a couple of moments where the two pull off genuinely humorous reactions. The sentencing scene is the highlight of the film with the result feeling natural and playing to the actors’ strengths. The scene where the two men are thrown into the county jail after their arrest is also funny until Wilder begins ad libbing a kung fu bit that just doesn’t work.
The film suffers from a lot of tone and plot problems. The film switches plot tracks numerous times with many characters introduced and ending up completely unimportant to the movie. JoBeth Williams shows up halfway through the film as an intended love interest for Wilder’s characters but goes nowhere and somehow still ends up with Wilder despite the story never earning that. After reading about the tension between Poitier and Pryor, I suspect Wilder had more plot added to his character as both a way to pad for Pryor’s absence and as a way to get a dig in at the comedian.
With contemporary sensibilities, it’s very hard to watch the Rory character, a horrible gay stereotype that I hope we have moved past. Rory is immediately attracted and clings to Pryor’s character. Pryor’s disgust at the attentions of a gay man is played for laughs culminating in the man kissing Pryor in the final scene. The comedian let’s lose an exaggerated “Yuck” to make sure we, the audience know he doesn’t return the affection. It’s a very gross type of character to include and he ends up being completely one dimensional.
Stir Crazy was the third highest grossing film of 1980 yet still was nominated for a Razzie. It was the highest grossing film by an African American director until I believe, The Wayans Brothers’ Scary Movie (2000). It’s an incredibly diverse cast in a very sloppy film with some problematic elements. Poitier would go on to direct Hanky Panky (also with Wilder), Fast Forward, and Ghost Dad. We’d see Pryor and Wilder come together nine years later in See No Evil, Hear No Evil which we’ll talk about next week.