Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together. Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.
New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!
While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…
It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.
Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.