Saturday 25 April 2020

Movie Review: Stir Crazy (1980)

A frantic but rarely funny comedy, Stir Crazy bounces along as a wayward vehicle for the mostly tiresome antics of stars Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

In New York City, waiter and aspiring actor Harry (Pryor) and his best friend Skip (Wilder), a kind-hearted writer moonlighting as a store detective, are both fired on the same day. They pack up their belongings and hit the road, heading to California. But their van breaks down in a small Arizona town, where they are soon framed for a bank robbery. Their court-appointed lawyer is next to useless, and Harry and Skip are sentenced to 125 years in prison.

Once behind bars they make friends with fellow-inmates Rory (Georg Stanford Brown), Jesus (Miguel Ángel Suárez), and eventually Grossberger (Erland Van Lidth). Warden Walter Beatty (Barry Corbin) discovers Skip has a hidden talent for mechanical bull riding, and pressures him into representing the facility in an annual rodeo competition. This leads to a series of confrontations with Deputy Warden Wilson (Craig T. Nelson) and a daring escape plan at the rodeo.

Featuring plenty of improvisation, incomplete scenes, loose narrative threads and just plain silliness, Stir Crazy only rarely rises to mediocre standards. A few laughs are found in the story of two none-too-bright men finding trouble at every turn, but director Sidney Poitier has only a loose grip on the thin script by Bruce Jay Friedman. And at regular intervals everything anyway pauses for Wilder and Pryor to engage in impromptu scenes of physical humour, and these are more often miss than hit.

Embracing a structure of disjointed sketches rather than a cohesive story, the film moves from New York to Arizona, then into prison and finally to the centrepiece rodeo event. As a result the tone is choppy and discontinuous, Friedman lacking the material to invest in any one place or theme. The casualties include barely defined secondary characters, with lawyer Len Garber (Joel Brooks) and his assistant/cousin Meredith (JoBeth Williams) failing to overcome the stature of props.

With Pryor surprisingly subdued and regularly fading into the background, Wilder occasionally prods the movie to life with a decent representation of a joyful man who refuses to allow his troubles to bring him down, frequently too empathetic for his own good. His character may have been interesting, but Stir Crazy never settles down long enough to find out.

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