When you think of directors who might helm a team-up between legendary comic actors Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Sidney Poitier probably wouldn’t be first on the list. But in a comedy that changes its venue and — to some extent — its tone several times, Poitier gets great performances out of his two leads. Of course, they’re one of the classic comedy film duos, so that should come as no surprise.
In 1980’s Stir Crazy, Wilder and Pryor play Skip Donahue and Harry Monroe, aspiring playwright and actor, respectively. After they both get fired from their day jobs at the same time, Skip takes it as a sign that they need to get out of New York and head to Hollywood, working odd jobs along the way to earn money. But a brief stop in an Arizona town becomes not-so-brief when — after taking a job as mascots for a bank — they find themselves wrongfully convicted of robbing the bank and serving up to 125 years in prison.
Amazingly, it’s all downhill for them after this.
While their incompetent lawyer Len (Joel Garber) and his more-competent assistant Meredith (JoBeth Williams) try to exonerate the pair, Skip and Harry have to adjust to life on the inside. This is where the comedic acting skills of Wilder and Pryor really come to the forefront. Pryor mugs for the camera a lot, giving wild-eyed takes as he deals with the advances of effete inmate Rory (Georg Stanford Brown), or deals with the more intimidating characters in the cell block; he even gets in his trademark blubbering when confined to the same quarters as the monstrously large mass-murderer Grossberg. Wilder plays Skip with a cheerful naivete, believing the best in everyone, and in general has the same kindly demeanor as his portrayal of Willy Wonka. It’s hilariously out of place in the prison, and even funnier because of how readily it wins over the other inmates; in fact, the main people who seem to be immune to his charms are the Warden (Barry Corbin) and Deputy Ward (Craig T. Nelson), who are manipulative and merciless. They want Skip — who proves to have a hidden talent for bull-riding — to represent their prison in a prison rodeo held against another institution, and they’ll stop at nothing to get their way.
Talent not necessarily requiring a knowledge of what you’re doing.
Stir Crazy thus weaves a few scenes of other genres into its depiction of prison life; there’s the buddy road movie beginning, and the rodeo has some aspects of typical sports competition films. Under Poitier’s direction, the film moves briskly through its paces, and these zig-zags always seem natural. This is, of course, helped out greatly by the lead actors, who are as brilliant as always. But the other actors in the film can’t be overlooked for their contributions. Georg Stanford Brown as Rory gets the lion’s share of the screen time among the other inmates, and his camp advances make him the perfect straight man — so to speak — for Pryor’s reactions. Miguel Ángel Suárez plays Jesus Ramirez, perhaps the most normal of the inmates, and his understanding of the ins and outs of the prison rodeo are critical to the final act. Craig T. Nelson is surprisingly chilling as the cold-hearted deputy ward, while Barry Corbin makes the warden a guy you’d almost want to like if he wasn’t being such a manipulative sleaze. And Erland van Lidth de Jeude — a man whose career would sadly be cut short only a few films later — shows considerable range as Grossberger. Also worth mentioning is Charles Weldon, the prison tough who schools Harry on the art of being a rodeo clown, whose easy delivery makes the lesson even funnier than if the scene had been relying on Pryor alone.
What’s scarier than a clown? Prison clowns.
With this film, Silver Streak, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, I’ve now seen three out of the four Wilder/Pryor team-ups; the lone film I need to track down is 1991’s Another You. It’s hard for me to say which one of those three is the best, although I note that Stir Crazy seems to break onto lists of the top comedy films more often than the other two. But all the Wilder/Pryor films I’ve seen come highly recommended from me, and Stir Crazy is certainly no exception. This is a funny, clever film with some unusual twists — as well as some scenes that have spawned countless imitators. (“We bad, yeah we bad.”)