Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor) are best friends living in New York City. Donahue is an amateur playwright, working a day job in department store security. Monroe is working as a catering assistant. When Donahue is canned for harassing a starlet and Monroe is fired because his marijuana ends up in the food at a society dinner on the same day, Donahue takes it as the perfect opportunity to finally leave the cold, unfriendly metropolis and head out West. Unfortunately, neither is very well adapted to life outside of New York, and they end up framed for a crime.
I hadn't seen Stir Crazy since at least the early 1980s. Recently I had a chance to rewatch Gene Wilder's The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), which I hadn't seen since the 1970s, and I was a bit disappointed. So I was nervous that Stir Crazy might also be a let down this far removed in time. That couldn't have been more wrong. I may have even thought it was funnier and more exciting this time around than when I first watched the film as a teen.
I had forgotten that Stir Crazy isn't just a comedy. It's also fairly suspenseful and surprisingly serious at times in the last act. Director Sidney Poitier makes a smooth transition through many genres--buddy film, road movie, fish out of water story and prison film, aided of course by Wilder and Pryor. While both actors have had plenty of performances just as good as Stir Crazy, neither have had any that were better.
In a way, this is really more Wilder's film than Pryor's. That's no slight on Pryor; Wilder just ends up getting more screen time. He presents a hilariously bizarre, complex character who is full of contradictions--kind of a channeling of a less loquacious Woody Allen through a more down to earth version of his Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, 1971). Wilder's Skip Donahue has an air of Mister Rogers-styled good-natured innocence, with the same kind of odd and maybe creepy homoerotic overtones, but he'll also turn on a dime into a neurotic, screaming loon. As I said, it's all very complex, but extremely funny and enjoyable to watch.
Pryor's Harry Monroe is more of a streetwise perpetual victim who doesn't adjust to the social world of the criminal justice system as well as Donahue does. He has a much more typical reaction, with no misconceptions about their dire circumstances.
The crux of the humor in the first section of the film is the naivety of Donahue's "grass is always greener on the other side" conception of the Western U.S. compared to New York City. Of course, things turn out to be not quite so simple, but it's funny and charming that Poitier and writer Bruce Jay Friedman have Donahue never quite wake up from his naïve misconception. It also turns out to have much more weight than just a comic device: Donahue survives in prison as well as he does, and it brings about the profound changes of character--Donahue becomes much more authentic, realizes his potential, gains material for his art and even gets the girl--because of his continued misprision (in the Bloom sense) about life outside of New York City, and in the end, it enables a "return to the market", as they say in Zen Buddhism.
Watching Stir Crazy at this later point in time, some of the humor might seem a bit clichéd to younger viewers. It's important to remember that this is where a lot of those "clichés" came from. In 1980, everyone was mimicking scenes from this film (such "We bad . . .") and repeating dialogue and jokes. Some of the filmic (and by extension general cultural) folklore or urban legends about prisons contained in Stir Crazy had made appearances in films prior to this one, but not in the particular irreverent way that they're satirized here.
This is an important film in the careers of a few of the greatest actors and comedians (Wilder, Pryor and Poitier), with an important place in the history of Hollywood comedy. The fact that it's also suspenseful and has philosophical things to say about human nature is a bonus that makes this a film you shouldn't miss.