By Richard Winters
My Rating: 1 out of 10
4-Word Review: Becoming a child’s pawn.
Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is unable to find stable employment and at risk of being evicted from his home. In desperation he takes a job as a night janitor at a local toy store. It is there that he gets spotted by Eric (Scott Schwartz) the young son of business mogul Ulysses (Jackie Gleason). Eric is used to getting what he wants so when Jack inadvertently makes him laugh he decides to ‘buy’ him and turn him into his own personal ‘toy’. Jack is initially reluctant to agree to this, but when he’s offered a lot of money he eventually goes along with it. Initially the relationship between the two is quite awkward, but eventually they form a bond and Jack manages to teach Eric many important life lessons while also getting Eric’s father to realize that money can’t buy a son’s love.
When compared to the original French version this thing is painful to watch. Much of the problem stems around the fact that the satirical point-of-view from the first one gets watered down here. The French film took a lot of calculated potshots at capitalism and corporate hierarchy, but apparently Hollywood was afraid they’d be considered ‘unamerican’ if they took that route, so instead of sharp humorous insights we get tired formula dealing with a rich kid trying desperately to get his father’s attention whose selfish personality needs fixing.
Because the message is so muddled it becomes confusing what point it wants to take, so to make up for it, they throw in all sorts of cringey life lessons crap like Pryor teaching Eric about the importance of friendship and even a a bit about ‘the-bird’s-and-the-bees’. After awhile it doesn’t seem like a comedy at all, but more like a tacky after school special your parents made you watch when you were in the third grade.
The humor that does get thrown-in gets equally botched. In the French version every comic bit that occurred fit into the film’s main them. Here though any gag that has the potential of getting a cheap laugh gets used whether it actually works with the main story or not. Many of which are tired, overused gags where you already know what the payoff will be before the set-up barely gets going.
Pryor’s casting was a bit controversial at the time due to him being black and then used as a ‘servant’ to a white kid, but the truth is Pryor is the only thing that saves it. He’s not exactly hilarious here, but his onscreen charisma is enough to at least keep it engaging. Gleason on the other hand, who was already in his mid-60’s at the time, seemed too old for the part although with the use of a wig he manages to camouflage it pretty well.
Schwartz, who is better known as the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a flagpole in A Christmas Story, and for his later career in adult movies, is annoying. In the French film I liked the kid, but the child character here is poorly fleshed-out having him go back-and-forth in irritating fashion from spoiled brat to emotionally needy tyke.
Ned Beatty makes the most of his small role, keeping his scenes funny when they could’ve easily been overlooked. Elderly character actor Wilford Hyde-White is amusing too and so is Teresa Ganzel as Gleason’s busty girlfriend, but virtually everything else falls flat. This includes an unnecessary side-story involving the Klu Klux Klan, which was not in the original film, and just extends this already excessive mess far longer than it needed to be.
My Rating: 1 out of 10
Released: December 10, 1982
Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes
Director: Richard Donner
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube