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The Great Train Robbery

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Universal has rereleased two Richard Pryor comedies from its vaults. One of them should have stayed in the vault.

Which Way Is Up? ()

New DVDs for Which Way is Up? and Brewster's MillionsWhich Way Is Up? (1977) is a remake of The Seduction of Mimi, a film by the radical Italian socialist filmmaker Lina Wertmuller. That hardly sounds like good source material for a Richard Pryor comedy, but in fact the source material is not the problem. It might have worked as an American comedy. The problem lies in the execution.

First is the film’s assumption that its jokes will be funny if only Richard Pryor yells loud enough. Pryor yelling was apparently supposed to get laughs from 1977 audiences. The only reason I can tell, is that scenes of him yelling at his wife and at his family have the pacing, if not the wit, of comedy.

This leads to the second problem, that of pacing. While the film pauses for laughs that never happen, the pace of the story slows down, and down, and down. The end result is a movie that’s painfully unfunny, and boring to boot. The only saving grace is the talent of Richard Pryor (he plays three roles), which is completely wasted in this film.

Brewster’s Millions ()

The other movie just released is Brewster’s Millions. The story must have some merits because it’s been filmed six times before.

Brewster (Pryor) is an ordinary guy whose dreams were bigger than his talent. He’s a minor league pitcher on the downward side of the ol’ pitcher’s mound. His luck changes when he inherits 300 million dollars. There’s just one big string attached. He must spend 30 million in 30 days and have no assets to show for it.

How do you spend money without having any assets to show for it? That’s what I wanted to know, too, and to my surprise and satisfaction, the movie has a good answer. In fact, the best comedic bits have to do with sticking to the rules. The whole situation is completely implausible, but once it’s established, it’s fun to see what a smart, desperate man can do with 30 million bucks.

Pryor himself is probably no better in Brewster’s than in Which Way is Up?, but there is a world of difference between the two films. In both cases, Pryor adopts his tightly-wound, basset hound persona, creating comedy by using his body and face to react to life’s little setbacks. But where Which Way Is Up? fell flat, Brewster’s bubbles over, thanks in part to director Walter Hill (48 Hours) and to the supporting players.

The late, great John Candy is the catcher for Pryor’s minor-league pitcher. I realize now that Candy had much more talent than I ever gave him credit for. As a comic sidekick, he only has to give a look or pick up a magazine, and there is instant comedy.

The pacing of the film is just right, letting scenes run just long enough to make an emotional or comedic point, then moving on. The story coheres better and the dialogue is funnier. Compared to Which Way Is Up?, Brewster’s is a work of art. Even on it’s own merits, Brewster’s is above average.

DVD Details

Neither DVD has much in the way of extras. Brewster’s Millions has a theatrical trailer and some information on the cast, crew, and production. Which Way Is Up? only has the movie. On the other hand, neither film really merits the Criterion treatment. These movies aren’t ground-breaking cinema, they are studio comedies.

In other words, these DVDs aren’t aimed at hard-core cinephiles. Fans of Richard Pryor should enjoy them, and more importantly, they add to the depth of the Universal DVD catalog. That in itself is enough.