It opens cutting between two scenes. Gene Wilder, as Skip Donahue, is a struggling play write working as a department store security guard, gleefully accusing a woman of being a shoplifter who is naked her under overcoat. Richard Pryor, as Harry Monroe, is a struggling actor working as a waiter at a swanky party where the cook mistakenly uses his stash of high end weed instead of oregano. Cut to the two of them in a bar, they’re best friends and they’ve both just been fired from their jobs. Wilder decides it’s a sign, they’re finally free to get out of New York… 1980 New York, where it’s every man for himself. So they hit the road for California.
On their way, they take a job in Arizona dressing up as woodpeckers in a bank to sing and dance for customers. While Wilder and Pryor are on their lunch break one day, some crooks steal the costumes and do the act before robbing the bank. So of course, Wilder and Pryor are immediately arrested for the robbery.
This leads to a typical 80s racial gag when the two first arrive in jail. All of a sudden, Pryor gets a certain swagger to his walk and ups the jive in the way he speaks, “You gotta be bad, jack. Coz if you aint’ bad, you gonna get fucked. Hey homes, get down”. It in no ways rivals the uncomfortable black face of Silver Streak, but it really is a moment that would have only happened in a movie made in 1980.
Through comedy writing convenience, they’re sentenced to more than 100 years each in prison. In keeping with the racial sensitivity displayed by Pryor’s ghetto act earlier, they are appointed a nebbishly Jewish lawyer who comes complete with all the cliched boxes ticked. There’s also the odd gay joke, treated with the kind of open mindedness the 80s were so famous for.
Once they get to big boy prison, the story revolves around an inter-prison system rodeo competition. Just let that sink in for a second. The major plot point for the second half of this movie is about two prison wardens making their inmates compete against each other in a rodeo.
Wilder and Pryor really do prove themselves to be an awesome comedy duo. Their timing is in absolute perfect sync, the physical gags they pull of together are all executed with pinpoint precision and every joke is built around each working to their individual strengths.
One thing confused me though. The movie’s called Stir Crazy. Wilder and Pryor both do countless batshit insane things. Yet the actual state of their mental health is never really addressed. Are they actually nuts, or are they just two regular dudes freaking out because they’re in prison. Luckily, pretty much every single freak out is hilarious enough that I don’t really care.
Stir Crazy really is the anti-Silver Streak. Where the latter built a convoluted story complete with predictable love interest, then tried to ad a joke in here and there, the former is nothing but wall to wall jokes, sketches and physical set pieces, with a bare bones story simply there to link them together. But when the jokes, sketches and physical set pieces are this funny, a bare bones story linking them together is all you need.