The “high concept” of Critical Condition,” the new Richard Pryor film, is that a con man must impersonate a doctor for one wild night in an emergency room. And get away with it.
As a concept, it’s admittedly more believable than Eddie Murphy as the Chosen One in The Golden Child. But not by much. And Critical Condition spends its first 15 minutes laboriously providing some explanation of how such a thing could happen.
Suspend disbelief then, and know that the con man (Pryor, naturally) is unjustly arrested on a police sting and about to be sentenced to prison when he decides to fake insanity. His antic disposition lands him in a hospital psychiatric ward, coincidentally on a night when a hurricane hits New York City and Pryor gets mistaken for a visiting doctor.
Got that? Don”t sweat it. All this confusion is just an excuse to get Pryor in a white jacket and have him take over the hospital. At which point, the movie gets reasonably – or at least coherently – on course.
The script is all over the place, and only two or three situations have any comic sense: Pryor withholding methadone to drug patients to blackmail them into working when the power goes off; running a helicopter into the lobby so the wash from the blades will provide air conditioning; juggling hearts in a transplant-holding laboratory; and delivering a baby, of course.
Pryor is on his own the rest of the time, and it’s the sort of panicky role that suits his talents. Actually, he’s not quite on his own; there are some good character actors giving some support, particularly the deadpan Bob Dishy (lately seen as the father in Brighton Beach Memoirs) as a doctor so obssessed with the threat of malpractice suits that he dares not practice medicine. And Pryor’s leading lady, Rachel Ticotin, is a cool, dreamy dish.
The other players are an odd mixed bag: Ruben Blades, star of Crossover Dreams, is wasted as the orderly who shares Pryor’s secret, while stage star Joe Mantegna spends much of the film tied up and gagged, held hostage by the other folks at the psychiatric ward, including ex-boxer Randall (Tex) Cobb.
The most thankless role goes to Joe Dallesandro, the sleepwalking stud of countless Andy Warhol movies from years ago. He plays an escaped killer or something, a character who is clearly a plot device to provide Pryor with one more blast of cheap heroics.
This thing was directed by Michael Apted. whose tastes continue to range far and wide (he directed the fascinating documentary 28 Up, and Coal Miner’s Daughter). Apted gives the film some sense of forward motion, although that doesn’t necessarily translate into laughs. Pryor alone is able to translate only a few.
First published in the Herald, January 20, 1987
This review seems to end abruptly, as though I were about to cite some Pryor jokes. So it might’ve been cut. This was the film that came after Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer project, and it would’ve been great if he could have knocked one out of the park at that point, but this was not that. I do want to hear more about this helicopter in the lobby, a sight gag that has vanished from my memory. Interesting cast, though; “stage star” Joe Mantegna had already done a bunch of movies, and this was the same year as House of Games. Things only got worse for Pryor from this point on, career-wise.