Our review of The Richard Pryor Collection, published March 10th, 2006, is also available.
Three times the Richard Pryor.
Three times the laughs.
Now ask yourself what you get when you multiply three and zero.
Facts of the Case
Leroy Jones (Richard Pryor, Stir Crazy, The Toy) is a farm worker who has a seemingly miserable life. His father Rufus (also Pryor) is a foul-mouthed malcontent, his girlfriend Annie May (Margaret Avery, The Color Purple) won't have sex with him, and he makes only tuppence a day working on the farm as a fruit picker. Leroy's fortune changes when Ramon Juarez visits the farm looking to garner support for a farmworkers union and a twist of fate lands Leroy a position as a leader in the union. Forced to leave town by corporate scumbags, Leroy ventures east to Atlanta where he gets a job as a painter and sends money back to his wife. Leroy then meets the beautiful Vanetta (Lonette McKee, Brewster's Millions) who's totally in to forming unions and standing up for the downtrodden worker and stuff. Leroy uses his very tenuous association with Juarez to woo Vanetta and they eventually have a child and get married. On the wedding day, however, Leroy prevents an assassination attempt on Juarez, and this lands him a job in management that he's forced to take by the corporate scumbags. This puts Leroy back into his former home where Annie May (who he still sleeps with despite having a wife and child) decides she needs constant deviant sex. When she doesn't get it from Leroy, she cheats on him with the local preacher Reverend Lenox Thomas (Pryor, again) and this forces Leroy to seduce the reverend's wife? But is it funny?
Which Way Is Up? is a film that, in 1977, spoke about the condition of migrant and blue collar farm workers in America. The film is also relatively spot on in the characterization of Leroy's transformation from a working stiff to the management. He hires his friends on to better paying jobs to help them out, but his friends quickly discover that the job won't be a free ride like they initially thought. Leroy ends up becoming something of a taskmaster he'd formerly openly mocked.
Yeah, but is it funny?
Pryor does a fairly capable acting job, going the Peter Sellers route and taking on three very different roles. Mere lip service is given to the roles of the cantankerous Rufus and Reverend Thomas, however, but at least the effort is there. The rest of the cast is also fairly capable of delivering the proper levels of angst and frustration that their respective situations places them in. The levels of poverty and the whole idea of the scumbags of corporate America keeping them down are themes that are prevalent throughout the film. Throw in the theme of corruption in the church (something too prevalent in recent news) and director Michael Schultz paints a less-than-pleasant backdrop for the story to unfold in.
Yeah, but is it funny?
Universal has given Which Way Is Up? a decent if unimpressive transfer. Okay, the film is 25 years old and the sound is mono. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of effort made to really spice up the picture, but the film used to complete the transfer was relatively free of defects, which is a plus. Otherwise the colors are somewhat washed out and faded, but there aren't any noticeable problems with digital artifacting or edge enhancement. Special features consist of some production notes and cast and filmmaker bios. Hardly impressive, but Universal isn't exactly claiming this to be a special feature.
Yeah, but is it funny?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, no, it isn't funny. Please understand that I think Pryor is one of the funnier comedians who ever lived. I completely respect the inspiration that Pryor was to the next generation of African-American comedians like Eddie Murphy, but Pryor's best film work was still a couple of years off from Which Way Is Up?. Maybe this film was funny at one point and it's really become horribly dated. It's certainly a possibility I've mulled over, but instead I would rather point to a number of rather unfunny premises that make their way into the film thanks to some poor directing.
For example, Leroy is not exactly a very likeable character. He cheats on his girlfriend. Then he doesn't have the guts to break a relationship off with his girlfriend after he gets married and has a child. Then when his girlfriend cheats on him with a slimy preacher, Leroy goes ballistic and tries to kill her in a ten-minute tribute to spousal abuse and profanity that has absolutely no humor to it whatsoever. Leroy then cheats on both of them for revenge by seducing the reverend's wife. It's just not funny at all. Emotional depth is removed so Pryor can do his stammering and stuttering and funny noise shtick that he does much better in other efforts like Stir Crazy.
Half the problem with the so-called comedy is a complete lack of staging and timing by director Michael Schultz, who appears to have not directed anything funny during his entire career. Most of the scenes in Which Way Is Up? simply drag on for far too long, like the final, laughless, time-filling skit at the end of every episode of Saturday Night Live. Which Way Is Up? could have been done and over in sixty minutes, but that would hardly have been worthy of a theatrical release, so Schultz tries to pad the time and manages to kill the laughter while he's at it.
I'd recommend Which Way Is Up? unless you have something much more important to do, such as torturing the dust bunnies congregating under the furniture or having long, meaningful discussions about the comedic stylings of Don Knotts. On second thought, I wouldn't recommend it even then.
I'm going to let Which Way Is Up? off the hook with probation seeing as how it's probably just guilty of being old and dated, but Michael Schultz gets the gulag for this one.
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