After Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder scored as a comedy team in the 1976 farce Silver Streak, a reunion was inevitable. As directed by the venerable Sidney Poitier, Stir Crazy emulates the Silver Streak formula without quite matching the earlier film’s frenetic energy. Worse, Stir Crazy bungles a romantic subplot, which is problematic since the sparks between Wilder and leading lady Jill Clayburgh were a major element of Silver Streak’s appeal. Yet the biggest shortcoming of Stir Crazy is that the storyline separates Pryor and Wilder for long stretches of screen time. Whenever the actors are together, Stir Crazy vibrates with good-natured silliness, and whenever they aren’t, the movie gets mired in the humdrum machinations of its contrived plot.
The movie begins in New York, where wannabe actor Harry (Pryor) and wannabe playwright Skip (Wilder) work, respectively, as a store detective and a waiter. Both men get fired on the same day, so ultra-optimistic Skip proposes they relocate to Hollywood. Car trouble stands them in Arizona, at which point Skip offers another “brilliant” suggestion—he and Harry don bird costumes to perform a musical number inside a bank as part of a promotional event. Then two criminals steal the costumes and rob the bank, thereby framing Harry and Skip for the crime. Up to this point, about 30 minutes into the movie, things are going well—the gags are weak but plentiful, and the plotting approaches a farcical level of lunacy. But then our intrepid heroes get thrown into prison, which brings the fast-moving narrative to a screeching halt. Once behind bars, Harry and Skip have predictable (and occasionally offensive) encounters with stereotypical characters including a gigantic serial killer, a tough gang leader, and a queeny homosexual. Meanwhile, Warden Beatty (Barry Corbin) improbably discovers that Skip has natural talents as a bull rider (!), so he orders Skip to perform in a corrupt prison rodeo. (Shades of 1974’s The Longest Yard.)
Flashes of amusement emerge during the picture’s fleshy middle, such as physical-comedy bits of Pryor and Wilder trying to fit into a miniscule prison cell, but the overall vibe is needlessly heavy and tiresome. By the time the flick winds toward its conclusion, Stir Crazy becomes an elaborate prison-break saga with virtually zero laughs. Nonetheless, the picture’s technical execution is impeccable, and the best moments in Pryor’s and Wilder’s performances are highly enjoyable. After Stir Crazy, the actors reunited twice more, for See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), both of which tarnished the legacy of a once-mighty screen pairing.
Stir Crazy: FUNKY