Having both lost their jobs on the same day, New Yorkers Harry (Pryor) and Skip (Wilder) decide to move west and put the nastiness of the city behind them. They take odd jobs for money, and their plan is working...for awhile. Taking a job in Arizona, they're mistaken for two bank robbers and sent to jail, earning 120 year sentences. Without much hope of an appeal, they settle in, finding out the prison is run by a -- surprise, surprise -- corrupt warden (Barry Corbin). Skip finds out he's a talented cowboy, and the warden sees a chance for some easy cash at the prison rodeo. Skip, Harry and their fellow inmates also see a choice opportunity...to escape.
I can't think of a more misleading plot review than that one. If I didn't know any better -- besides the New Yorker turned prisoner turned rodeo cowboy -- I'd peg this 1980 comedy as a drama. What's even weirder than that? Well-respected and award-winning actor Sidney Poitier is the director, one of nine movies he's directed during his career. This isn't a classic comedy to end all comedies. It's harmless and means well, and wants to do one thing and one thing only. It wants to make you laugh, and it succeeds there in a big way. The story has its fair share of meandering along with its episodic plot -- most of it routines for Wilder and Pryor to show off -- but it is always funny. Some of it leans toward more physical bits (both actors were great physical comedians) while also counting on them to sell their lines with some pitch perfect, immaculately delivered lines. A comedy that's fun. Novel concept, huh?
Four years since they first teamed in 1976's Silver Streak, Wilder and Pryor show why they were such a great team together. And that's the important thing; team. As comedic actors, they're both very capable of carrying a movie on their own. But like the best comedy teams/duos, they play off each other so well, setting each other up for jokes and laughs in every scene. Pryor's Harry is a nervous guy who sees things at their worst. Wilder's Skip is a naive idealist, constantly looking for the good in people. He doesn't seem to get that prison is a nasty place, and that "suggestions" to the warden aren't going to go over well. Harry is always looking out for his friend Skip as they navigate their new lives in the prison system, Skip always looking for stories and characters for his soon-to-be written novel. Some actors -- comedic or dramatic -- just work well together, and these two have some of the best chemistry I've ever seen. It's effortless, making the at-times stupid humor seem really smart. Dumb, smart, it doesn't matter. Pryor and Wilder make it good.
Like any memorable comedy, there's got to be something that sticks with fans after the movie concludes. 'Stir' has more than enough, those iconic scenes that keep you laughing whether you're watching the movie or not. The most iconic here is Harry and Skip first arriving in prison, Harry deciding they've got to show how "bad" they are, Skip falling in step. The physical mannerisms, the forceful deeper voices, it's priceless. Watch it HERE.There's too many to mention though, one just as good as the other. The running bit with the meanest prisoner around, Grossberger (Erland van Lidth), a serial killer, is perfect, Skip proving he's not so bad after all. Skip also survives countless torturing at the hands of the warden, shaking them off one by one like it's nothing, including a hanging torture that gets all the kinks out of his back. Long story short? Both Wilder and Pryor get a ton of chances to show off their ability.
The rest of the cast fills in nicely around the two, including Corbin and Craig T. Nelson as Warden Beatty and his head guard, Deputy Wilson. For the most part, they get to play the straight role to Wilder and Pryor's antics, doing so capably while keeping some personality in their roles. Georg Stanford Brown has a lot of fun with some stereotypes as Rory, the gay prisoner who likes Harry and ends up becoming part of the group along with Jesus, played by Miguel Angel Suarez and van Lidth as the immense Grossberger. Joel Brooks plays their incompetent lawyer, Garber, with JoBeth Williams playing his assistant, Meredith.
If there's an issue with the movie, it comes in the ending as 'Stir' struggles to get to any sort of finale. The prison rodeo drags on a little too long as Skip, Harry and the guys try to make their escape. The laughs are still there, but they're fewer and further between. Minor complaint though. The movie is a gem though thanks to the extraordinary talents involved.
Stir Crazy <---TCM clips (1980): ***/****