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Case Number 08782

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The Richard Pryor Collection

Car Wash
1976 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG
Which Way Is Up?
1977 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Bustin' Loose
1981 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG
Brewster's Millions
1985 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Released by Universal
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // March 10th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron knows that even a hopeless wino like Mudbone would agree—the late, great Richard Pryor deserves better than this horrible hack job of a box set.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Brewster's Millions (published June 7th, 2002), Bustin' Loose (published February 18th, 2005), and Which Way Is Up? (published August 2nd, 2002) are also available.

The Charge

"I know the place for money in this world…it's right here in my pocket."
—Daddy Rich (Richard Pryor), Car Wash

Opening Statement

Without a doubt, Richard Pryor was the greatest stand-up comic of the post-modern era. Though he wasn't the first to combine keen characterization with observational riffs, he was an amazingly gifted humorist, understanding the underlying comedy in even the most oppressive, unsavory situations. He attacked racism on a realistic level and used the plight of his people as backdrop for a critique of the overall American experience. He was scandalous and straightforward, using foul language and sexual imagery as a means of humanizing the horrors he dealt in. Had he simply stayed on the stage, using his infinite wit to create one classic in-concert cavalcade after another, his legendary status would be secured. But Pryor was lured into another avenue of performance and he seemed to enjoy the art of acting. As a result, he left behind a string of so-so films that never really captured the quintessential spirit of Pryor's humor. The closest he came was in the breezy buddy pictures he made with pal Gene Wilder, and even then, the pair tapped the partnership one too many times (Another You, anyone?).

With his death this past December 2005 from complications surrounding his bout with terminal MS, Universal does a bit of unconscionable grave robbing, marketing four of the man's incredibly minor movies (one of which he doesn't even star in) in a single, flip-disc "Franchise Collection" presentation. Unlike his stand-up films, nothing here is remotely memorable and much of it represents the trap that Tinseltown set for the scathing social commentator. Two of the movies are even rated PG, further emasculating this amazing comedian. Sure, Pryor willingly took part in these films, but after sitting through six hours of such unfunny film farces, you'll wonder what this naturally funny man saw in these weak, wimpy projects. The obvious answer has more to do with dollar signs than dignity—or his future dynasty.

Facts of the Case

Four films. One DVD. Two sides. Here is the breakdown of the films featured on this bargain-basement compendium:

Car Wash (1976):
It's just another crazy day at the Dee-Lite Car Wash. Owner Mr. B is still chasing the fashion-conscious cashier Marsha (Melanie Mayron, My Blue Heaven), while his son studies the works of Chairman Mao. The crew, consisting of ex-con Lonnie (Ivan Dixon, Hogan's Heroes), recent convert to Islam Abdullah (Bill Duke, Predator), the flamboyant cross-dresser Lindy (Antonio Fargas, Starsky and Hutch), the superhero wannabe TC, and the singing act of Floyd and Lloyd join the other workers on the line for some typical joking and jiving. As the usual collection of crazies arrive to have their vehicles serviced, we meet a snotty bitch whose son is terminally nauseous, a skate rat who loves to torment the team, a lonely hooker who uses the bathrooms as her personal parlor, and an evangelical preacher named Daddy Rich who sells salvation and spirituality—along with a little nookie—on the side. When the news reports that a mad bomber is running loose through L.A., the Dee-Lite doesn't seem to mind. All they want to do is get through the day and get their pay. After all, why would they care if this business was blown sky high? They won't get wealthy working at this Car Wash.

Which Way is Up? (1977):
When farm worker Leroy Jones accidentally falls in with union organizers, he becomes an instant hero to his compatriots and an instant enemy of management. The bosses threaten his family and give the mistaken troublemaker a one-way ticket out of town. Totally intimidated, Leroy heads for L.A., where he again falls for a member of the labor movement. Her name is Vanetta (Lonette McKee, Jungle Fever) and she makes Leroy promise that if they get together, he will never sleep with another woman—not even the wife he left behind in the boondocks. When Leroy inadvertently stops the assassination of a union leader, the bosses again manipulate his situation. He is made a member of management and sent back to the country to work with his previous pals. Of course, this means Leroy must get back with his spouse, but Vanetta makes him vow, no marital relations. Of course, Annie Mae (Margaret Avery, The Color Purple) thinks her hubby has gone queer and she seeks counseling from a preacher who impregnates her. Leroy, determined to regain his honor, sleeps with the preacher's wife. It all goes horribly wrong to the point were the down and destitute man can't tell Which Way is Up?

Bustin' Loose (1981):
Lifelong loser Joe Braxton is caught trying to con an electronics warehouse out of high-end stereo equipment and is sent before the judge. Already on parole, he pleads to be sent back to jail rather than to have to deal with his strict corrections officer. Little does he know that the man has altogether different plans for his felonious charge. It appears that his fiancée, a social worker named Vivian Perry (Cicely Tyson, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), needs a bus driver to take her and a group of troubled kids across the country to a farm in Seattle—and Joe would be the perfect chauffeur. Despite his overwhelming protestations, Braxton takes the gig and finds himself stuck with the high-strung do-gooder and her collection of misfit moppets. There's a pyromaniac, a girl who believes her stuffed bear is alive, a couple of wannabe gang types, and a blind kid who longs to drive the bus. There's even a teenage hooker from Vietnam! Still, Braxton takes it all in stride, trying to keep his cool as these hyperactive brats test his patience and his emotions for other human beings. He knows he's caught between a rock and having to deal with his bossy parole officer, but if he had half a chance, this free spirit would definitely be Bustin' Loose.

Brewster's Millions (1985):
Minor-league ballplayer Montgomery Brewster has dreams of the big time. When he gets invited to see a group of important men, he thinks he's finally getting the call-up. Turns out, these lawyers have a legal bombshell to drop on the dude. His great uncle, a white industrial capitalist, has recently died and left him his fortune. The conditions for the inheritance are kind of odd, however. Brewster must spend $30 million in 30 days and have nothing of material consequence—no assets, no earnings—at the end of that time. If he succeeds, he will get his true bequest—$300 million. Trouble is, he can't tell anyone of his plan—not his best friend and teammate Spike Nolan (John Candy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles), nor the accountant, Angela Drake (Lonette McKee), hired to keep track of his spending. If he fails or blabs about his predicament, he gets nothing. Taking up residence on the top two floors of New York's ritziest hotel, Brewster goes about the task of tapping out his account. Eventually, Brewster decides to run for public office as a way to deplete his funds, but there may be a conspiracy to see that he loses no matter what. Someone is jealous of Brewster's Millions and wants them for their very own.

The Evidence

There was one that got away. Had he been able to get the financing approved, Cleavon Little would have been a more or less unknown actor of color and Richard Pryor would have played the role of Sheriff Bart in Mel Brooks's brazen ballyhoo Blazing Saddles. Pryor had worked on the screenplay and was all set to star, but because of his controversial antics, his colorful use of language, and his mainly minority fan base, he was deemed performing persona non grata and Brooks had to balk. Little was handed the part of a lifetime. It killed Pryor, since the movie went on to be a true mirth milestone, another notch in Brooks's broadening comic canon. It would be two long years before Pryor took the supporting role of Grover Muldoon and turned Silver Streak into a big fat box-office hit. Hugely popular at the time, it turned Pryor from a simple stage and TV star to a main man of multiple mediums. It would also be his aesthetic downfall. Aside from his concert films—classics one and all—Pryor would be paralyzed by film, failing to find an adequate avenue for his talents. Want proof? Just look at the lamentable attempts to fashion this force of nature into a one-off stunt shot (Car Wash), a perplexed symbol of political oppression (Which Way is Up?), the story of a genial convict with a soft spot for kids (Bustin' Loose), and a fable about an over-the-hill athlete who lucks into a fortune (Brewster's Millions). These movies do nothing but sully an already tenuous career reputation.

Let's look at each film individually to determine just how much damage they did to Pryor and his path toward creating his motion-picture comedy canon. We begin with:

Car Wash (1976):
Let's make one point perfectly clear, right up front. Richard Pryor does not "star" in this film. He isn't part of the "ensemble," and he doesn't offer up a complex character turn. His role as a hypocritical preacher lasts for about three minutes and could be called a cameo, except that it's probably an insult to the term, technically. Like the other featured comics—George Carlin as a mad cabby and the perplexing Professor Irwin Corey as…well…never mind—Pryor is here to pepper the film's attempted authenticity with hyper-stylized hooey. Over the top and completely pointless, the filmmakers figured the only way they could get his scene to stop would be to have the attending Pointer Sisters sing their way out of it. So if you can accept the fact that Pryor is not really part of this production, you may actually enjoy some of what Car Wash is offering. It is still a stiflingly melodramatic movie, loaded with messages about maturity and being a man, along with some awfully average humor. It's not hard to understand why the movie is so mediocre—the script was written by cinematic newbie Joel Schumacher. Yep, the director who would turn Batman into a fetish freak created this slice of urban, African American anarchy. There are elements here that provide some mild entertainment—ex-Hogan's hero Ivan Dixon makes a great gruff guide—but the overall tone is scattered and, by today's cynical standards, totally insipid.

Which Way is Up? (1977):
After his breakthrough performance in Silver Streak, Pryor was a hot commodity, which makes the choice of Which Way is Up? as a follow up even more perplexing. A fairly faithful remake of Lina Wertmuller's The Seduction of Mimi, this strange, surreal political farce is maybe the closest this comedian ever came to making a statement movie—Some Kind of Hero being another awkward attempt. Once we learn that Pryor is playing three parts—Leroy, his foul-mouthed father, and an adulterous preacher—the reasons for taking the project become much clearer. This is a totally schizophrenic film, with the stand-up trying to stand out while the narrative keeps pushing him back into the symbolism and proselytizing. The plot is almost impossible to follow, with the storyline jumping around whenever and wherever it feels like it. Even worse, it never really tries to explain its pissy points. We realize that the overly white corporate boss, a character with the painfully obvious name of Mr. "Mann," is some manner of devil incarnate and that Leroy is being sent through a series of trials and tribulations to test his merit and his manhood, but somewhere along the line, things get jumbled. Maybe it's because Pryor is playing it both straight (as the lead) and silly (as his "other" roles). So much of the '70s that it should be wearing flares, this film is dated and just plain dull.

Bustin' Loose (1981):
By 1981, Pryor was a motion-picture superstar. His concert films were incredibly popular and his second co-starring vehicle with Gene Wilder, the wildly successful Stir Crazy, was breaking records. Again, given his choice of scripts, Pryor decided to develop his own personal project. Figuring that a story about an ex-con who learns life lessons from a group of troubled teens would work, he made Bustin' Loose. Granted, the formula worked before (The Bad News Bears) and after (Kindergarten Cop), but there is something really wrong with the way Pryor and his creative team handle this material. This is probably the comic's most fully realized role in the set. He seems to inhabit Joe Braxton in a way that just doesn't exist in any of the other three films, but Cicely Tyson appears preoccupied and unprepared (she tends to ramble instead of perform) and the kids are all clones from the "too smart to be real" school of cinematic underlings. Even more disturbing, the movie suddenly shifts gears when the third act turns into an oddball kind of con/crime chase film, complete with our star leaving his subtle turn as Braxton and donning a cowboy suit to play a participant in a crooked trapezoid scheme (unlike a pyramid because it has four sides, see…). For all its well-meaning intentions about belief in self and standing proud, Bustin' Loose is a major mess. It offers very little of what made Pryor a comic presence and definitely feels like the filmic equivalent of cashing a paycheck.

Brewster's Millions (1985):
The '80s were well-known for their high-concept films—movies in which the stars and the situation were more important than the actual story. Giving Richard Pryor untold wealth to play around in, cinematically speaking, should have been a sure-fire idea and, for a while, Brewster's Millions gets by on the notion of this comedian as an incredibly rich rascal. As he interacts with the movie's other main selling point, a reasonably winning turn by the late, great John Candy, we see the potential in the premise. But since this was the Greed decade, and no movie could be made without substantial idiotic interference from the studios, Millions becomes a mindless, muddled extravaganza. There is very little wit in the script and the narrative even attempts to make a point about politics along the way. Though he was only 45 at the time, Pryor appears far too old to play the role of a washed-up ball player (they keep saying he's been a professional for 15 years, which means he got his start at, what, 30???) and it's obvious in some of the scenes that a double was used. Since this is primarily a bit of wish-fulfillment fluff, some of these flaws can be ignored, but we expect more from Pryor. Surprisingly, we rarely got it.

Indeed, Richard Pryor will probably go down in celluloid history as the most successful stand-up comic never to score a timeless motion-picture comedy on the big screen—concert films excluded. Sure, as a co-star, he has a couple of candidates, but when he was the certified lead, the results could be plain (Critical Condition) or painful (The Toy, Moving). Even his autobiographical stab at respect and redemption, 1986's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling failed to completely connect as a film (though it did provide searing insight into the man's many demons). As a matter of fact, once he was diagnosed with MS, Pryor did manage some engaging dramatic work. His performance as Joe Springer in an episode of Chicago Hope won him an Emmy nomination, and he made a brave if baffling appearance in David Lynch's labyrinthine Lost Highway. But when other comics like Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy can point to pictures they made and argue for their place in the pantheon of humor classics, Pryor would have a hard time holding his own. For the gifted comedian, movies were the lottery that all his hard work and interpersonal pain had created for him. Quality control was not high on the list of priorities. Collecting that contractual salary was all that was important and the movies in this below-average box set prove this point perfectly.

Universal does deserve dumping on for how it treats Pryor and these films. Putting four feature length movies (each is about 90 minutes, more or less), two per side on a single flip disc means compression issues are more or less obvious. The colors are faded and mild at best, with Car Wash and Which Way is Up? looking the best. Yet the details get lost in these occasionally murky transfers, and the image is not as crisp as we've come to expect from the digital medium. At least each movie is offered in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that preserves the original aspect ratios. On the sound side, there is nothing but plain old Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 offered here, but unless you lament the lack of channels for Car Wash's wicked soul soundtrack, you won't be missing much—not even the often annoying dialogue. As for extras, well, Wash gets a trailer and that is it. Nothing else. No mention of Pryor as a performer or a personality, just a quick repackaging of previously available titles to tempt the fan into forking over some grief-inspired cash. If it didn't happen so often, such a callous marketing ploy would be absolutely repugnant. Pryor deserves a hell of a lot better than a crass commercial cardboard box gravestone.

Closing Statement

Decades from now, how will Pryor's entire film oeuvre look? Will scholars find the subtlety and style in the comedian's crappy performance as part of the equally pathetic Superman III, or will future fans flock to a revival of See No Evil, Hear No Evil and wonder aloud why audiences in the '80s rejected this terrible, tasteless comedy. Some of his efforts may find a way to translate over time, especially anything—Blue Collar, Greased Lightning—that tried to be more than a formulaic farce. Still, when looking over the ludicrous Franchise Set offered here, one has to feel that Pryor will be positioned as a powerful, potent stand-up who never found his niche in the Tinseltown trade—and maybe that's the way it really should be. Pryor should not be remembered for playing the human toy for a racist rich kid or a preacher who can't stop "anointing" his flock. He is the greatest comedian of all time and when he spoke for himself, no one could deny him that title. Sadly, his cinematic efforts betrayed him every time. Here's hoping that future generations ignore his filmography and concentrate on his comedy. His movies were incredibly average for such a superior talent—as this box set shows very, very clearly.

The Verdict

Guilty as all holy hell, the Richard Pryor "Franchise" Collection is sentenced to 100 years of incessantly hard labor. No chance of parole. No hope for early release. Case closed.

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Genre

• Comedy

Scales of Justice, Car Wash

Video: 85
Audio: 75
Extras: 5
Acting: 70
Story: 60
Judgment: 75

Perp Profile, Car Wash

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Car Wash

• Trailer

Scales of Justice, Which Way Is Up?

Video: 85
Audio: 75
Extras: 0
Acting: 75
Story: 60
Judgment: 62

Perp Profile, Which Way Is Up?

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Which Way Is Up?

• None

Scales of Justice, Bustin' Loose

Video: 80
Audio: 70
Extras: 0
Acting: 79
Story: 55
Judgment: 60

Perp Profile, Bustin' Loose

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Bustin' Loose

• None

Scales of Justice, Brewster's Millions

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 80
Story: 75
Judgment: 76

Perp Profile, Brewster's Millions

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Brewster's Millions

• None








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