Sidewinder’s View: Which Way Is Up? (1977)

I’ve been on a Richard Pryor Movie binge for the past week or so and decided to seek out a few I’d never seen before. First up on the list? Which Way Is Up?, from 1977, a remake of a 1972 Italian picture, The Seduction Of Mimi:

I hate writing synopses, so here’s IMDb’s:

Richard Pryor is playing three different roles here. The first being a poor orange picker named Leroy Jones who gets laid off when by mistake he joins the worker’s union during one of their demonstrations. Afterwards he is forced to leave his wife and family behind which also includes Leroy’s father (also played by Pryor) to go to Los Angeles. Leroy ends up working for the same company that fired him back home. He is a manager at the company but he is now distant from his former pals. He meets and falls in love with Vanetta who is a labor organizer which leaves him splitting time between his wife Annie Mae and Vanetta. When Leroy finds out that the Reverend Lenox Thomas (also played by Pryor) has got his wife pregnant while he was absent, he then make the moves on the reverend’s wife.

РWritten by mts77 

The whole plot hinges on Pryor’s main character behaving like a selfish asshole and making consistently horrible decisions.

When he returns to his hometown and decides to split his time between his first wife and his second wife/mother of his child, I wondered ‘why the charade?’. His first wife, for reasons never explained, wasn’t willing to have sex with him before he left town and they don’t have any kids together, so why not just make a clean break of things?

He’s even promised his second wife, upon returning to the hometown, that he won’t get it on with anyone but herself. And he puts up a valiant effort when his first wife, unaware of the second wife/other family, comes on to him relentlessly.

So why is he there? Why remain in such a volatile arrangement?

Because it’s more melodramatic? Because it offers more opportunity for comic antics?

Both, perhaps, but, either way, it only made the main character look like a cowardly, selfish creep.

When I watch a feature-length comedy, I prefer it when I’m given a main character I can get behind, one whose success I can root for while I’m laughing and having a good time.

On that level, Which Way Is Up? fails miserably.

I suppose we’re meant to laugh at the wife’s amorous advances being redirected by Pryor’s character’s ‘exhaustion’, but the results on film feel incredibly forced and drawn out to the point where I was shifting in my seat and glancing at the DVD player’s time-counter.

Not that I was terribly offended by the movie. Aside from a few bits early on in the story that gave me a chuckle or two, it simply wasn’t funny.

The whole plot, I soon realized, would have had to have been scrapped if the main character had, at any of the story’s crucial points, behaved laudibly. The story, as the filmmakers wished it to turn out, could advance to the desired conclusion only if the character made increasingly loathsome decisions.

If the main character had ditched the first wife straight away after winning the heart of the second wife, he would have had no good reason to get upset when he learned the first wife was knocked up by the preacher…

…which, in turn, would have canceled out Pryor’s character’s petty, cold-hearted revenge seduction and spiteful impregnation of the preacher’s prim and proper wife…

…meaning, ultimately, that all but the first 20 minutes of the story would have had to be scrapped in favor of a different plot direction. Which would have been preferable to the material explored in this remake.

Seriously, whose bright idea was it to remake a deliberately provocative Italian art-house “dramedy” into a comedy vehicle for Richard Pryor? Maybe it played better in Italian, with different actors, or it sounded good on paper, but the results are pretty dismal.

Because it was late Seventies, R-rated Richard Pryor, I sat down to watch this picture with high hopes. I really wanted to love it. And I tried. I really tried.

Maybe it was during the seemingly endless, stunningly un-funny ‘comedic’ scene of Pryor physically attacking his first wife in their kitchen– when, upon learning she’s pregnant by the preacher, he chokes her, slams her onto a table and screams how he’s going to kill her– that I finally tuned out of this movie. I’m supposed to keep rooting for a character like this? Sorry. No.

Pulled off his wife by his family and friends, Pryor’s character admits his own infidelity to the first wife by telling her about his second wife and the secret family he has with her across town…which prompts the first wife to attack him with a knife and a cleaver.

That’s when the main character decides to seduce and impregnate the preacher’s wife…who, of course, after some brief resistance, goes along with the scheme. Of course.

It was at that point that I realized I didn’t like any of these characters. Not a one. They all seemed to be either pathologically selfish, self-destructive, dimwitted, malicious or just plain deranged. Yet, in spite of all that, none of them were funny or even interesting.

When you realize every character in a movie sucks, and that the story’s just an excuse for a string of absurd contrivances crafted solely for the sake of stoking outrage, the end credits can’t roll quickly enough.

I’ve seen some disappointing Richard Pryor flicks over the years, but this one, by far, qualifies as the most unpleasant.

Its characters and plot seemed designed to agitate and alienate its audience, all in the service of, I guess, some half-baked political statement. That may be fine for an Italian art-house flick, but not at all what I expect from a film sold as a Richard Pryor comedy.

The movie has exactly two things going for it: Richard Pryor, and the movie’s theme song by Stargard:

Apart from that, this movie was a real bummer.