Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling

December 21, 2012

jojodancerRichard Pryor has done a lot of courageous things in his bizarre, brilliant, occasionally out-of-control career. But taking on the duties of director, producer, star and co-screenwriter of a highly autobiographical film must rank as one of Pryor’s gutsiest leaps.

The film is Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, which chronicles the life of a comedian from his boyhood in a bordello, through popularity and personal unhappiness, to a crucial injury in a drug-related fire. All those things are recognizable as real events from Pryor’s life.

The movie begins with the fire. Pryor lets you know right away he’s not just fooling around. After being wheeled into the emergency room, Jo Jo is lying on a hospital bed when his alter ego rises from his body; this alter ego takes us through Jo Jo’s life up to this point, to find out how he could have ended up in such a sorry state.

Little Jo Jo (E’Lon Cox) is raised around prostitutes. Later, his father (Scoey Mitchell) ridicules his aspirations toward show business, but Jo Jo strikes out on his own to a promised stand-up gig in Cleveland.

This sets off by far the most satisfying segment of the film: the young comic struggling with early routines in a divey nightclub, and learning a few showbiz rules. He owes his first job to a stripper named Satin Doll (Paula Kelly); one night, Jo Jo takes her place (and her wig and G-string) and grinds his way through the striptease—it’s a tour-de-force for Pryor.

The film never equals the atmosphere of these scenes. It skips across Jo Jo’s rising fame, but doesn’t really give a sense of his career. Instead, it concentrates on a couple of unhappy marriages (to Barbara Williams and Debbie Allen) and the escalating romance with drugs.

The film’s most shocking moment is saved for the end. The fire, it seems, was not entirely accidental; Jo Jo had doused himself with rum, in a desperate suicide attempt.

Like many details in semi-autobiographical films, this moment raises provocative questions. Is this what Pryor did, in his real-life accident? Or has he altered the event for dramatic purposes?

The queasiness raised by this question permeates the film; you often get the sense of looking directly into a man’s life. Pryor’s nakedness in the strip scene turns out to be both literal and figurative.

I wish all this honesty had produced a better film. Although Pryor is lucky in having John Alonzo as his cinematographer, and the film looks okay, it’s jumpily assembled. It feels as though it went through some serious cutting before release (it originally had a Christmas ’85 slot, but was pulled for tinkering); certainly it’s not long enough to do justice to its ambitious subject.

More fundamental than this, Jo Jo Dancer just seems out of focus. As funny as Pryor is in the movie—and there are plenty of funny bits—there’s simply no sense of perspective. Pryor may be so close to the material that he still hasn’t been able to digest it all. It’s a series of scenes, many of them intriguing, laid out end to end but never quite coming together in a meaningful way.

In fact, it resembles a convoluted stand-up comedy routine, mining the facts of life for material, which Pryor has been doing for a long time. It’s a shame he couldn’t transform his monologues into the triumph this movie might have been.

First published in the Herald, May 3, 1986

There are movies that would never have been made without a star having a particular moment of heat, and this is one of them. It is a disaster, but you can imagine an alternate-reality version of an autobiographical Pryor film that truly unleashes his genius.

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Brewster’s Millions

July 3, 2012

Brewster’s Millions has been a reliable commercial property since—well, since near the beginning of the history of movies. The story of a man who must spend a million-dollar inheritance in order to inherit even more has been filmed six times.

It’s natural that the idea would be revived again. The plot is such a sure-fire comedic premise that you can envision any one of the talented comics of today taking the property and scoring with it. Eddie Murphy or Bill Murray or Michael Keaton would all do well by it.

But Richard Pryor got it, and he probably needed it the most. Pryor’s star has been dimming steadily since his concert-film zenith a couple of years ago, and Brewster’s Millions ought to improve his standing.

Times being what they are, the amount of the inheritance has been beefed up considerably. Pryor, as a has-been pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls minor-league baseball team, inherits a fortune from his eccentric great-uncle (Hume Cronyn). The catch: Pryor must spend $30 million in 30 days. If he does it, he’ll inherit the old coot’s entire fortune—about $300 million worth. If he fails, he’ll get zilch.

He can’t give it all away, and he can’t acquire any assets. The money has to be completely gone at the end of the month. Oh, and he can’t tell anybody why he’s spending all this money, either. That means his best friend (John Candy) and his new accountant (knockout Lonette McKee, from The Cotton Club) assume he’s being foolhardy with his wealth.

You can see why the movie’s got a lot of built-in promise. There’s plenty of wish fulfillment at work here: Of course we all want to think about the various ways we’d spend that much dough if—I mean when we win the lottery next week. The film puts Pryor in that position, and delivers some pretty satisfying fantasies.

Pryor pours it on thick: natty clothes, a penthouse hotel suite in downtown Manhattan, well-paying jobs for all his friends. He leads an entourage to a posh restaurant and asks the matire d’ what the most expensive champagne is. “Chateau Lafitte 1961,” the fellow replies, apprehensively. Pryor mulls that over, and turns to the crowd behind him: “Hey, you guys like Lafitte?” Resounding cheer from the crowd—and from the audience, too.

The movie has such a talent bank—including the scriptwriters of Trading Places and Walter Hill, the director of 48 HRS.—that I was expecting more. It’s funny, and Hill moves the film along at a whipcrack rate, but it’s completely without surprises. In fact, the movie is so nonstop, you feel a little wiped out at the end. It would have been nice to pause now and again and get to know the characters a bit more.

It’s going to do good business, and it’s certainly fine to have Pryor back in harness. But for everyone concerned, Brewster’s Millions seems entirely too safe and sane.

First published in the Herald, May 1985

Ah, what to do with Richard Pryor: the studios never really did get a handle on that. But this kind of safe approach really does seem wrong.


Harlem Nights

January 26, 2011

The opening credits are rather ominous, at least in retrospect: “Paramount Pictures Presents/In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions/A Film by Eddie Murphy/Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor/Harlem Nights.” That’s a lot of Eddie Murphys. And there are two yet to go before the credit roll is over: “Executive Producer” and “Written and Directed by.”

Murphy, a conglomerate unto himself and a very talented fellow, appears to have overreached this time. Harlem Nights is obviously a cherished project, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. It looks like a film made by a man who wasn’t required to answer to anybody.

Murphy plays Quick, the adopted son of a classy Harlem nightclub owner named Sugar Ray (played by Murphy’s lifelong idol, Richard Pryor). Their business is flourishing in the late 1930s, until Manhattan’s crime lord (Michael Lerner) decides to take a bite. He sends his top henchman, a crooked cop (Danny Aiello), to threaten Sugar Ray or close him down.

All of this is the setup for Sugar Ray’s response, which is to unleash an elaborate retaliation along the lines of The Sting, while Quick romances the bad guy’s mistress (Jasmine Guy).

It is a bizarre movie. A scene will begin like something out of Beverly Hills Cop only to end up looking like Once Upon a Time in America. A lot of characters are killed in ways that are evidently supposed to be funny, but come off as peculiar.

An index of the film’s failure is the period design. The costumes are great, the music is beautifully chosen, the cars are vintage. But the behavior and language of the characters is absolutely rooted in the ’80s. There’s no effort to weed out anachronisms, or to conjure a sense of what Harlem must have felt like in the 1930s (despite a couple of authentic supporting performances by Redd Foxx and Della Reese). Everything is breezily superficial.

Two sequences come to mind as original. One is the prologue, in which Murphy’s character, as a child, first comes to Pryor and coolly shoots an adversary dead. The second is a boxing scene in which the black world champion is fighting a great white hope; as each boxer lands blows, the different halves of the crowd jump to their feet—exactly one half is white, the other black.

Among its other problems, Harlem Nights comes off as awfully mean-spirited toward women. This has been a criticism of Murphy before, but he seemed to be maturing pleasantly with his previous film, Coming to America, which was a charming love story. Harlem Nights is a step back in almost every way, and it displays no evidence that Murphy has any kind of touch as a director. Worst of all, he’s accomplished the unthinkable. He has made Eddie Murphy not funny.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1989

A real dud. Pryor’s career, which had been a skyrocket earlier in the decade, was now winding down for a variety of sad reasons (he’d had his own self-directed flop a couple of years before this—Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling—which at least had some strange energy to it).