Take Two: Revisiting “Stir Crazy”

03.26.15 2 years ago

Our weekly series in which writers revisit for the first time in ages their youthful passions and reconsider how well they hold up with the passage of time.

The late 1970″s were a glorious time to be first discovering movies. For a boy in his adolescence, there were of course the complete life-altering revelations of seeing “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters” and eventually “Raiders” on opening day, surrounded by hundreds of other kids struck absolutely dumb at the spectacle before them. It was impossible to be young in those days and not become obsessed with the movies.

But best of all were the comedies. It was an era when the genre was of re-inventing itself; moving out of the code restrictions that had hemmed comedy in since the dawn of Hollywood, the movies suddenly found itself let loose with acres of previously untouchable terrain to roam, and very few rules to guide them.  The anarchy of the comedies of this time was like heroin. “Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Airplane,” “Fast TImes;” these films were the bible of all life should be: bawdy, rude, ramshackle, undisciplined and the coolest things you”d ever imagined.

When you found a comedy you liked, you followed it around like a religious convert trailing after a revival minister. The old distribution model still reigned, so first you”d see them opening weekend at the giant movie palaces, then in a few weeks (or months) they”d move to a mid-sized theater, and finally settle in at a third run house, one of the forerunners of the multiplexes that would have as many as three or four screens under one roof. And there it would sit as long as demand lasted – sometimes for a year. And I”d come back again and again and again.

Every Saturday, my five dollar allowance would cover a round-trip on the bus to Los Angeles” Westwood Village, a hamburger and soda from McDonald”s, two games at the video arcade and a ticket to the movies. Every weekend I”d return and see the same film over and over until it had engraved itself on my soul.

The comedies of course were mostly rated R, but it being the 1970″s, finding a grown willing to buy a ticket for an 10-year-old boy to see an adult film was never a problem. If not, there were back doors to sneak in or when all else failed, just walking up and putting your money on the counter worked more often than not.

Many of the comedies of this era have since entered the canon as modern classics, and I”ve re-watched them regularly since youth. One however, which seemed as hilarious as any of the others, has fallen off the map.  I was 11 when “Stir Crazy” debuted and saw it easily a dozen times on the screen. At the time it seemed to me that it was one of the great comedies ever made.  And I wasn”t alone. Starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, “Stir Crazy” was the third highest grossing film of that year, topping “Airplane” (which came in fourth). But while the influence of that satirical masterpiece has in the years only grown and grown, “Stir Crazy” has disappeared largely without a trace.  Despite the reverence both Pryor and Wilder are held in, their most successful collaboration is almost never screened, rarely referenced.

I decided to return to “Stir Crazy” and find out what gives?  Were we all nuts lining up for this film back then, or had a masterpiece somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. My 11 year old self would have never believed it possible that the clock could be set back to a world that didn”t worship “Stir Crazy.”

There was reason to be hopeful. “Stir Crazy” was directed by none other than Sidney Poitier himself, a fact which seems so incongruous with the near-sainthood bestowed upon him today, it”s almost impossible to process.  The script is by Bruce Jay Friedman who would go on to write a trifecta of comic delights – “Splash” “Doctor Detroit” and Steve Martin”s underappreciated “The Lonely Guy.” And then there”s the stars themselves.

And so thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I fired up my VOD service and went back to where it all begin. “Stir Crazy.”

So…to start with, Pryor and Wilder have lost not an ounce of their magic in the decades since. The film gives them ample – more than ample, loads of ample – time to add lib and ham it up and they make the most of it. The first act of the film sets up their story, such as it is: a pair of out-of-work men of the stage (Wilder a playwright, Pryor an actor) decide to drive out west to seek their fortune in Hollywood.  On the way, their car breaks down in a desert town, they get jobs as singing woodpeckers (don”t ask) at a bank to pay for the repairs and on their first day at work, two robbers hold up the bank in their woodpecker costumes and the two buddies are arrested for the crime and thrown in the state prison.

All that happens in the first 30 minutes, and despite the fact that the plot feels as adrift as the above description sounds, Pryor and Wilder are a total pleasure to watch. A couple of the scenes, rewatching reminded me, inspired catch phrases at the time, particularly when the un-streetwise pair first are thrown into jail and Pryor attempts to perfect a tough guy walk, chanting “We bad. We bad.”  When they learn they are heading to jail for 125 years, their dual meltdown is pure, unfiltered, comedy perfection.

That said, even in the first act, rewatching it, one can feel the stars squeezing blood from a stone.  The script gives them nothing to work with; not a single funny line or even any sort of inventive comic situation. The laughs are entirely driven by Pryor and Wilder ad libbing while at the height of their powers, which is formidable to watch.

And then suddenly, its not enough.  About 45 minutes in, just as the film has completely established that these two city slickers are, in fact, in a Texas jail and once they”ve reacted to the horror of that set-up with every variety of mugging in their powers  it screeches to a halt, and what follows in inexplicable. Or more to the point, it is inexplicable that this was the second half to two-thirds of a hugely successful movie.  It is as though someone from the studio appeared on set just as the crew was packing up and announced, “Oh, by the way guys, we”re gonna need another hour of movie.” And with a gun to their heads, they were forced to make one.  

So the movie circles back on itself, letting the stars do their meltdowns again. Scenes are strung out forever. The jokes lose their energy and are repeated again and again. The plot focuses on Wilder, whom it is discovered, has an aptitude for bronco riding and is forced to ride in the prison rodeo, at which, he, Pryor and a few of their colorful new friends plan to escape.  The escape plan unfolds it seems in slow motion, over the course of an hour laying out the scheme to basically, take a piece of wood off the rodeo bleachers and crawl out.  As this plays out at the speed of death, any attempts at comedy whither to dust until the film just stops trying completely. Most of the half-hearted stabs at laughs center around a prisoner who decides he is in love with Richard Pryor and keeps trying to hold his hand. His suitor being a convicted murderer, Pryor is terrified to pull his hand away, and so, hilarity ensues.

The completely lost second half is, of course, a trademark of the era”s comedies. Having thrown away the old road maps of comedy structure, so many of these movies just die a terrible death once they set up their premise. “Stripes” also famously goes off the rails in its European adventure sequence. But when history tells the story, it is the laughs that live on. The early laughs of “Stir Crazy” are so almost beside the point and dry up so hard and so completely, that by the time one limps across the finish line, you are hard pressed to believe that they had even been there.  

The signature of any 70″s comedy is of course, its gratuitous boobs scene. “Stir Crazy” services this with a plotline involving JoBeth Williams, who plays Wilder and Pryor”s lawyer”s cousin (again, don”t ask) who in order to clear their name must go undercover and work at a strip club which employs a tattoo artist because maybe there she”ll find the real thieves, whom a witness to the bank robbery identified by their tattoo. And so, we get a scene in a strip club with many cutaways to the stage, and the R rating is dutifully earned, requiring a young me to ask a grown-up in line if they”ll buy my ticket for me, every weekend for months of 1980.

Taking it in, the charms of “Stir Crazy” are not to be scoffed at. Getting Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder together on a screen qualifies as dream team territory. But sheer comic charm alone can not hold aloft the total collapse of the second half.

All of which makes me wonder: what the hell was I thinking seeing it 10 plus times when I was 11 years old?  Is there any way I can have enjoyed the leaden, hour-long escape section? Did time just move slower in 1980?  Without the constant rattle of cell phones and computer screens in our heads, were we more able to entertain ourselves when a movie stumbled into a slow patch?  Were we a more forgiving people before hate-watching and mean tweets, able to celebrate the sweet, and forgive the bitter?  Or was I just happy to be out of the house, seeing inappropriately mature comedy led by a pair of zany guys most of whose wit went far over my head but whom I somehow dreamed pointed the way to a much more exciting future than the limits of my humdrum sixth grade life? 

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