Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I Just Drive The Bus

By Odienator

In Moving, Richard Pryor's character, Arlo Pear has a moment of frustration he perfectly describes with dialogue. Pryor drunkenly says "life is not one big joke. It's a series of little jokes." The way he delivers the line is funny, but underneath it is real pathos and pain. This was Pryor's genius, both in concert and on film, though Hollywood had severe difficulties finding ways to use him properly. They always wanted a wiseass Pryor, a confident Pryor, a Pryor who lived up to all the shit he spoke about in his concerts. But they weren't listening. In concert, Pryor told great stories about how his mouth got him into trouble with Mafia guys, women, even the father who, taking Pryor's suggestion that Pryor had become a man, punched him in the chest so hard his chest caved in. He'd pretend he was Mr. Big Stuff ("I'm MACHO MAN!" he exclaimed in Live in Concert) but soonafter he'd tell you how it backfired. At heart, Pryor was just a regular guy trying to get by, putting up with life's frustrations and telling jokes about them to keep him from losing his mind.

Bustin' Loose was the first film project of his where Pryor had some input into the story. Pryor was an Emmy and Writers Guild Award winning writer who co-authored Blazing Saddles and episodes of Lily Tomlin's TV show. Until Bustin' Loose, however, he hadn't officially authored anything he appeared in onscreen. Pryor's story was adapted by Sounder writer Lonne Elder III, then fashioned into a script by Enemies: A Love Story writer Roger L. Simon. Pryor was then cast opposite veteran Cicely Tyson in sort of a African-American African Queen crossed with The Bad News Bears. When Hollywood chose to have Pryor interact with a kid, they gave him The Toy. Pryor's relationship with the kids who populate Bustin' Loose is darker and more complicated.

The plot is standard issue. Joe Braxton (Pryor) is a career criminal. When Bustin' Loose opens, he is being thwarted in two separate robberies, one by a Three Musketeers eating Doberman Pinscher, the other by Pryor's writing partner, Mr. Paul Mooney. Mooney panics during a huge TV robbery and drives off in the getaway truck before Braxton can finish the heist. Braxton winds up not only arrested but punched out by the guy whose store he intended to rob.

Through trickery, Braxton winds up on parole rather than back in prison. His parole officer is a ballbreaker named Donald (Robert Christian). During the botched TV heist, Donald's do-gooder girlfriend Miss Perry (Cicely Tyson) appeared on all the TV screens discussing how the orphanage she ran had been closed by the city of Philadelphia due to budget cuts. Since the children will be homeless, Perry wants to move them to her family farm in Washington state. With no money for plane tickets, Perry needs to hire a driver to drive a rickety bus from Pennsylvania to Washington. Donald blackmails Braxton into driving Perry and the troubled kids in her care cross-country. Rather than go back to prison, Braxton acquiesces.

Perry's bunch are all problem kids. One is a pyromaniac who burnt down his house and killed his parents, another is blind and desperately wants to prove he can drive, and another is a Vietnamese teenager with a history of sexual abuse and prostitution. There are two thugs, one Black and one Puerto Rican. My favorite kid is a heavy-set little girl named Samantha who is never without a huge stuffed teddy bear named Dakota. Dakota has bladder control problems: No fewer than four times during the picture does Samantha tell Braxton "Dakota gotta go to the bathroom!" (Around my house, it became a catchphrase; my sister had a bear that looked exactly like Dakota.)

In The Toy, Richard Pryor is attached to the horribly distasteful plot device of being bought as a toy for a rich White man's son. Pryor either took the role to work with The Great One, or he needed the money for freebase. Whatever the cause, Pryor has to run around in service to the kid. Trapped by a PG rating (though Pryor could be very funny working clean), Pryor can't really tell us what he thinks of the situation. The one scene where he relates to the young boy on a human level is an amusingly ironic moment where the boy asks him about sex. It's ironic because the kid (Scott Schwartz) grew up to be a porn actor. It's not Pryor's fault; he tells the kid to keep it in his pants.

In Bustin' Loose, the kids are a lot tougher and less sheltered. They frustrate Joe Braxton to no end, and at some points even overwhelm Miss Perry. Several times in the film, she is distracted while the kids stumble into mischief. I began to question just how effective Miss Perry was, since she's usually running after her triffling man, Donald, when this occurs. The film alludes that Braxton may have been just like one of these kids--he has no family to speak of and had been incarcerated much of his life--and though they try his patience, he finds ways to relate to them. In one scene, he pulls a knife on them when they get too unruly. "Sit yo' ass down before I stick you in it!" he says. In another scene, to keep them from running rampant, Braxton plays strip poker with them, losing his pants and shirt in the process. The shot of Pryor in ridiculous red longjohns is almost worth the price of a rental.

As they travel cross country, the problems pile up on Braxton. He's not allowed to smoke his cigars nor use his favorite curse words. (Miss Perry actually pops him in the mouth.) The hotel runs out of rooms and he has to sleep on the bus. The firebug kid sets fire to a bale of hay, causing Braxton to have to pay an angry farmer for the damage. Some of the kids go missing. The bus is constantly breaking down. And of course, Dakota has to go to the bathroom. "Let the bear pee in your pocket!" Braxton tells Samantha. Throughout this, Braxton yells, curses, and whenever he's asked to do something above and beyond his duties, he says my mantra: "I just drive the bus."

The classic scene in Bustin' Loose occurs about midway through. The exhaust system has fallen off the bus, and while Braxton is fixing it, it starts to rain. The bus gets stuck in the mud and Braxton has to go walking into the woods to get help. "I saw a farm up the road," Braxton says to Miss Perry. "I'll go ask for help." The way Pryor delivers his lines in this scene is hilarious, not so much for what he says, but in the way he uses his voice to say it. You can hear him trying to maintain composure, trying not to explode. As a result, his dialogue comes out exceptionally polite. Far less polite is what Braxton says as he's walking through the woods en route to that farm. "I'm Miss Braxton's favorite son! Nobody fucks with Joe Braxton!" he mumbles as he strides as only Richard Pryor can. Unfortunately for Miss Braxton's favorite son, he strides right into the White Sale in the Woods.

You can find out how Braxton worms his way out of that mess. (Hint: It has something to do with the Ray Charles School for the Blind.) Braxton's other big problem is Donald, who has been following them in his car and now realizes that blackmailing Joe could cost him his job. Donald is a one note villain who shows up just to cause trouble, but Robert Christian attempts to give him some character. Donald seems to enjoy the proverbial pissing match with his parolees, lording his power over them with sadistic glee. Donald sent Braxton on this trip solely to punish him. When he realizes Miss Perry might be falling for Braxton, and that the kids are coming around to respecting him, Donald wants to call the deal off.

Casting a bunch of kids in a movie usually is an excuse for a plethora of heart-tugging cutesy moments. But these kids aren't exactly lovable, and while Braxton eventually softens to them, and they to him, he doesn't have the magic words to solve their problems. In fact, his frustration leads to some unconventional scenes. In an early scene, the abused Vietnamese teenager flirts with Braxton and he flirts back. You think it's going to go a certain (very bad) way. But when she comes on to him while he's fixing the bus, he freaks out. He yells at her, and what he says doesn't sound like something Hollywood would normally script. His panic is palpably real, and the moment when Pryor turns to confront her, he does so with such force that it's scary. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" he bellows before dispensing some blunt common sense talk to her.

Braxton yells a lot, but he also has a few quiet moments with the kids. The closest the film comes to a syrupy sentiment is in his dealing with the boy who inadvertently caused his parents' death. Even so, the way Pryor speaks to him, the way he modulates his voice, is very effective and keeps the scene from being overbearing. Late in the film, when it appears Donald has won his battle against Braxton, Pryor plays a scene where he says goodbye to the children. Again, how Pryor speaks and uses his body helps anchor the scene, as does his constant sense of realism. "I've done something bad," he tells the kids matter-of-factly, "and now it's time for me to pay for it."

Bustin' Loose has a third act that begins well but descends into some (admittedly funny) slapstick and gunplay. At the beginning of this act, however, Pryor plays the film's best scene. After all the trouble it took to get to Washington, we discover that Miss Perry's farm is about to be foreclosed upon due to unpaid taxes. Her bank loan has been denied. The kids are whining about having to go back to Philly and Miss Perry has also given up. Braxton gives a profane, emotional speech to her that knocks Tyson right off the damn screen. For those unsure of Pryor's acting talent, I submit this sequence as evidence:

"I don't have shit but me, but I ain't no loser. Don't you tell me I am. And they ain't losers either. I drove that goddamn bus all the way from Philly--with bait and wire, and I fixed it, and we are here. So don't you tell me I'm a loser. I've done something for once in my life. I'm somebody, and you ain't gonna take that away from me."

One of the kids overhears this, and while telling the others, Braxton shows up. "Shut up!" he yells at them. "Take a hike," yells the kid. Shockingly, Braxton hauls off and hits him. As he picks him up off the ground. Braxton tells them "we're not losers!" "Hey," he says to the kid he slapped. "What?!" asks the kid, still holding his face. Pryor mouths to him: "we're not losers."

The scene continues. Braxton finds himself in front of the bank, holding a brick and ready to bust the window. Then he sees a sign for a pyramid like scheme. Pryor lights up--this is a hustle and a con and he knows it. He also knows how it works. "I can do this!" Braxton says. Finally, a chance to use all that criminal hustling for good. Pryor beams. It's an extremely well done sequence by the film's star.

The pyramid scam produces that late reel gunplay and slapstick, and while it's quite silly it is still hilarious to see Miss Jane Pittman beating the shit out of some guy with a plunger and pretending to be a mannequin to evade capture. It leads to the happy ending you were expecting, complete with a nice little Roberta Flack song to send you out feeling good.

Casting the renown actress Cicely Tyson opposite Richard Pryor results in an interesting pairing. The two have chemistry, and her prissiness complements his vulgarity and rough edges. Tyson brings her acting A-game but she's matched by Pryor and they have a comfortable level of charitable give and take to their scenes. The kids are types for the most part, but you can't help but like and feel for them as Joe Braxton grows to feel for them.

Watching the film last night, I thought about the symbolism of that bus. "It's a piece of shit!" Braxton exclaims after examining it. But he gets it to work, despite the numerous times it falls apart on the road. It's like life, really. No matter how raggedy yours is, you still have to make it work. And until they pull your number upstairs, now serving, all you can do is drive the bus. "I just drive the bus," Braxton reminds us, just as I find myself saying it whenever a client asks for more than they paid for, or someone hits me up for more than they are entitled to, or someone is bitching at me for something over which I have no control. I just drive the bus.

As a side note: Pryor must have really felt that his bus was running off the road; during the making of this film, he had his famous fire mishap.

Your homework assignment:

Make sure all the wheels are at the right pressure on your bus.

I had to sneak in to see this movie, and this is why. (That old MPAA band makes me nostalgic.)


Anonymous said...

Wow, I haven't seen this movie in over 15 years, but certain scenes still stick in my mind. What's interesting is that it's got such a conventional structure, and plays out how you'd expect- with Braxton learning to love the kids and helping to solve all their problems...

...but Pryor does all this with Braxton and the kids in a very human, very unconventional way. These kids don't have movie problems, they have real fucking issues. The scene where Braxton goes ballistic on the Vietnamese girl is great- the girl really can't process why Braxton is so incensed, because her behavior has become so normative to her. Can you imagine a scene like that taking place in a road comedy made today?

Braxton himself is an imperfect, angry anti-hero, but slowly it dawns on him how rough these kids have it, and why he may not be the best role model, he's all they've got.

Plus, the scene where he's muttering to himself and suddenly walks right into the Klan Rally? One of the funniest moments ever.

odienator said...

This movie was overshadowed by Stir Crazy when it came out. I like Stir Crazy, but I always thought this movie was better.

People forget the humanity Pryor brought to the screen a lot of the time. Even in his comedy concert films, it's there. He's also very good at juggling comedy and pathos. His Live on the Sunset Strip routine on how he "burnt the fuck up" is a master class on how to pull this off, as is his heart attack routine in Live in Concert. The latter, however, became a lot less funny to me after my own heart attack. (OK, it's still funny...but damn.)