Saturday, February 16, 2013

For Rent: One Negro, As Is

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

It’s Role Playing time at the Mumf. Let’s play a game called Odie at the Studio. You’re the sexy studio head, and I, in my GQ suit and Fifty Shades of Grey tie, have come to pitch an idea across your desk. My pitch: Let’s get two comedic geniuses, one from the prior era and one from the current, and stick them in a remake of a hit French comedy. Don’t worry! It’ll translate. The plot? The old White comedian buys the young Black comedian as a toy for his 9-year old son. Like the French version, we’ll call it The Toy.

Don’t panic! This is 1982! We can do that shit without people getting all politically correct on us. Let me loosen my tie here. Oh, you like that, huh? Maybe now is the time for me to say we’ve got Jackie Gleason AND Richard Pryor interested in doing this, and Richard Donner, the director of Superman, in the chair behind the camera. Put that back on! You tease me. Patience!

Let’s also throw in the fact that Gleason’s character is a rich Southern man in cahoots with the Klan, and Pryor’s girlfriend drives a truck for an organization called Klan Watch. It’ll be a cute little hippie bus with the words Klan Watch on it.

You look concerned. Don’t be. I’ll make it worth your while. I won’t even mention that the little kid in question is an annoying little bastard who would make Mother Teresa strangle him. 

This will have to be rated PG, but right now, let me show you something rated Triple X.  You like that, don’t you? Well greenlight this movie, and it’s yours.

The scenario above must have been how 1982's version of The Toy got greenlit at Columbia Pictures. Either that, or the Columbia Pictures logo was freebasing with Richard. How else did this film get made? The racial implications of a rich, SOUTHERN White man buying a Black man as a children’s toy are staggering. Had The Toy been completely ignorant of this, and presented itself as a bit of color-blind casting, I might be a tad more forgiving. But the film is quite aware of its premise, which makes The Toy a painful series of missed opportunities to be outrageous and subversive. The film constantly flinches at where it’s going, and pulls back in extreme terror.

The Toy is based on a 1976 French film called Le Jouet. That film was written and directed by Francis Veber, a name you may not know, but I assure you of your familiarity with his work. Veber is Hollywood’s go-to filmmaker for comedy remakes. His French output has led to such fare as Tom Hanks’ The Man With One Red Shoe, My Father The Hero, the Billy Crystal-Robin Williams film, Father’s Day, Martin Short’s Pure Luck, and Steve Carell’s Dinner for Schmucks. His play A Pain in the Ass became Billy Wilder’s last—and worst—movie, Buddy Buddy. When Hollywood ran out of directors to remake Veber’s work, they hired him directly; he remade his own film Fugitives and wrote the John Hurt gay cop movie, Partners, which came off as Cruising with a laugh track. On the plus side, Veber also wrote La Cage Aux Folles, but that only buys him so much goodwill.

Still, I wonder what Veber would have done with Pryor and Gleason in The Toy. Unafraid of cringe-inducing stereotype and unlikable characters, Veber might have given this version of The Toy the teeth it needed to bite the audience. Much of his original idea remains: journalist becomes rich kid’s plaything under duress, then inspires kid to create his own newspaper to expose his newspaper magnate father’s evil ways. The kid is a spoiled brat, but the father is truly tyrannical, treating his employees horribly. Gleason can play intimidating (see The Hustler) and Pryor had just come off a film where he had great chemistry with bad ass kids. In the right hands, Gleason’s bulk and bluster, and Pryor’s desperate ingenuity, could have made The Toy work.

Instead, Carol Sobieski’s screenplay adaptation dumbs Veber’s idea down in some rather offensive ways. She can’t make up her mind about anything tonally, and some of her more intriguing ideas are either forgotten or neutered at the last minute. This is the same woman who  fucked up Little Orphan Annie’s trip to the big screen, but at least John Huston’s film (released the same year) had an unhinged Carol Burnett to save it. Not once does Sobieski’s script let Pryor lose control, except to do things like climb up a door in fast motion as if he were Willie Best reincarnated as Sylvester the Cat.

Sobieski’s screenplay really does Pryor’s character wrong. In the original, Pierre Richard is a journalist at the paper already, doing a piece on the toy store where he’s discovered by the kid. In the remake, Pryor is an out of work journalist who gets a job as a maid in the house of U.S. Bates (Gleason). When that falls through, (it might have something to do with Pryor’s maid outfit) Pryor is assigned to cleaning one of Bates’ numerous toy stores. Bates’ kid, Eric (Scott Schwartz) notices Pryor after some questionable physical comedy and finds him funny enough to be bought as a companion. Pryor objects, but Bates’ employees keep giving him money until he acquiesces.

Why couldn’t the original plot machinations have been kept? Had The Toy starred Robin Williams, would he have been out of work, in drag, and acting like a buffoon when discovered by Bates’ kid?

Meanwhile, director Donner can’t make up his mind as to how to present this material. His film knows the prickly path it has chosen, and there are things on the fringes I wish he’d explored. Gleason is always surrounded by Confederate flags and has shady dealings with the KKK, his son dresses in clothing from The Night Porter Kiddie Collection at Macy’s, and Pryor has a throwaway line where he describes his new occupation as “slave.” All of this is trashed in favor of turning this into a non-sadistic version of Home Alone for kids. Gleason’s newspaper magnate is a horrible sadist one minute, a concerned dad who wishes his son would connect with him the next. Gleason comes prepared to play a complete asshole—his scene with Ned Beatty, an employee his ruthlessness has driven to alcoholism, is truly unnerving--but The Toy demands that we root for his happily ever after with his kid. It also employs the most explosive comedian of the era, then straitjackets him into a role as a Sidekick Negro who teaches little White boys Soul™. This film didn’t need Richard Pryor, it needed Michael Jackson.

Donner’s attempts at goofy French physical comedy are painful. In one scene, Pryor is attacked by piranha in the Bates’ property lake. Pryor’s character is smart enough to know piranha are in South America, yet he’s proven wrong. Donner then shows Pryor running on top of the water in fast motion, his clothing full of holes courtesy of the piranha. It sounds funnier than it is, and considering this cartoonish slapstick is at odds with most of the “comedy” in The Toy, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The verbal comedy fares no better. The kid is referred to as “Master” Bates throughout the film, and in the Southern mouths of its female characters, U.S. Bates’ initials keep coming out as “You  Ass.” I admit I laughed at the “You Ass” part, if only because I thought Tereza Ganzel’s slutty wife character would make the perfect “You Tits” to Gleason’s “You Ass.” For a PG-rated kiddie movie, even one in the old school PG’s guise, Ganzel’s boobs get way too much air time. 

Dontcha miss the old PG rating?

Pryor’s relationship with Eric is also suspect, even if Pryor manages to wring a little sentiment out of it. Eric treats Pryor like shit one minute, knocking down his food and dumping oatmeal on his head numerous times, then abruptly turns around and declares his love for Pryor as the father figure he wished he had. Again, the racial angle, and the fact nothing is done with it, make this more offensive than if The Toy were honest about it. All Eric needs is a good ass whipping, and when Pryor finally decides to give him one (to the cheers of the audience), Sobieski calls the emotional equivalent of Child Protective Services. “Please don’t spank me,” cries Eric. “I love you, Jack!” 

The movie would be shorter if Pryor used this Odie's Mom-approved methodology

Did I mention Pryor’s character’s name is Jackie Brown? Pryor’s old girlfriend, Pam Grier, should sue.

Another scene has real potential, yet is squandered by the skittish filmmakers. Pryor is humiliated by Gleason’s trophy wife, who drags him into a formal dinner meeting to explain that he has been bought by her husband. “We’re selling them in our toy stores now!” exclaims You Tits. This scene has a racial sting that could have translated into comic fury. Imagine Pryor finally blowing his top and ripping into these people! Instead, the script drops this in favor of an unfunny bit involving the house sprinkler system. As Pryor attempts to escape the alarms, he is chased by Bates’ security team. 

 "Spiderman Underoos Sold Separately!"

At this point, I wanted to slap the shit out of the makers of The Toy.

There’s one other element of The Toy that is such a wasted opportunity I’m sorry the film teased me with it. It has the Klan Watch van! Pryor’s civil rights lawyer girlfriend is driving around Louisiana in this thing, which not only says “Klan Watch” on it, but has a cute little hooded logo as well. Considering the racial climate of the South, her van is basically saying:

 “Please blow me the fuck up with a bazooka!!” 

The Klan Watch Van shows up during the climax of The Toy, where U.S. Bates is having a fundraiser for Southern Senators and the Klan. (Ed. Note: Isn’t that redundant?) Pryor’s girlfriend looks ready to expose that sumbitch U.S. Bates, but Pryor intervenes, turning the scene into an unfunny toy car chase. It ends with the Grand Duke Wizard immersed in fondue and looking like Al Jolson.

At the end of The Toy, Eric Bates runs to Jackie Brown. Brown has been paid the money he’s owed, and Eric wants to stay with him. Pryor tells him that he should try to love his father instead. “He’s trying,” says Pryor. So, U.S. Bates, a racist who humiliates poor Ned Beatty as a show of how much sway he has over his employees, gets off scot-free in this film. He gets to keep his money and his tenure despite being exposed by the newspaper his son and his Nigra put out (yes, that plot element remains in the film, and is rendered useless). I suppose this is the one subversive thing about The Toy, but I really wish everything else but this had been.

As if adding insult to injury, as soon as You Ass Bates rides off into the sunset, another rich White person tries to buy Pryor’s Manny services. This sends Pryor running off into the sunset with a toy arrow stuck to his head. The film irised out and the credits rolled. My heart sank. 

You know what? This film needs to be remade. And I should write it. We’ll need to cast Wayne Brady, because we’ll need a comedic Negro White folks would actually buy as a toy. We can’t have any of the usual Black comedians, not even the now kid-friendly Eddie Murphy, because U.S. Bates would shoot them. Maybe Kate Upton as titty lady. Hell, perhaps we can even get Scott Schwartz to play U.S. Bates! I’m sure I can get a PG-13 on appeal, despite my penchant for politically incorrect troublemaking and Schwartz's later career in the adult film industry. But even if I just showed you a blank screen for 90 minutes, you’d enjoy it more than The Toy.

This is what Santa should bring you if you've been naughty.

As an aside, Richard Pryor’s other 1982 film, Some Kind of Hero, was tampered with by the studio. Despite Pryor’s excellent dramatic performance in that film, it’s a mess. I wonder if a similar fate befell The Toy, which would  explain why it’s such a tonally fragmented disaster.


Steven Boone said...

Just write it as a spec script, let the lawyers work it out later. Package deal with your Skin Game remake.

Somebody is going to try to do it and fuck it up anyway, trust.

I would bring Wendell B. Harris out of retirement to direct it. Yes, Wayne Brady, or Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Steven Boone said...

If only we could time travel about 20 years and put young Wendell B. Harris in the reboot.

And get that draft done quick, maaan, before Nelson George beats you to it.

neilralston said...

You're right. There was so much talent wasted in The Toy. I'm glad it was made because I was working in Louisiana at the time and got to talk to Richard Pryor while the actors and crew shot some scenes at the Hammond Daily Star newspaper. Pryor was dog tired off camera, and I was surprised he was able to muster the energy he did when the cameras were rolling.

Anonymous said...

Well, now. As one of the world's three biggest Richard Pryor fans, I simply have to jump into the mix on this one.

I started a review of The Toy about a year or so back, one I never finished. And in it, I asserted that the film was embarrassing enough to make true Richard Pryor fans wish that he'd died during his freebase incident in June of '80. After all, I think Pryor's career can be neatly divided into two phases: pre-freebase incident and post-freebase incident. (Or if you prefer: The Pryor Who Says "Nigga" and The Pryor Who Renounced The N-Word.)

The problem with The Toy isn't that its premise is so jaw-dropping or that the people involved didn't make the most of its subversive potential. It's that they didn't make this film with the live-wire, coked-out Pryor of the '70s -- a Pryor who might have injected some real, raw, unscripted (and unscriptable) energy into the proceedings.

This film most definitely needs to be remade and two things need to happen: 1) the premise needs to be confronted head-on 2) the ramifications of that premise need to be carried out to the fullest, and in a way that spares neither side. Fuck Nelson George, I'm the guy to script that remake.

Also, I saw this as a wee tyke upon its original theatrical release and Teresa Ganzel's tits were the stuff of my first-grade daydreams.

odienator said...

Scott, I would say that Another You is the movie that would make me wish Rich perished. But then again, had he done so, I wouldn't have Bustin' Loose, Jo Jo Dancer or that 21 minute section of Live on the Sunset Strip where he talks about his accident. That section is the best thing Pryor ever did; it's such a spellbinding, horrific account of the perils of addiction. Only Pryor's genius storytelling could pull that off. It's so good it almost makes me think he blew himself up for the sole purpose of writing that comedy routine.

As for your The Toy script: Better hurry up, my brother. Mine is already done.