Long before Eddie Murphy was playing multiple roles on the big screen, Richard Pryor donned the make-up and wigs to play three characters in this 1977 comedy flick. Like Murphy, Richard Pryor was considered by many to be a comedic genius on the live stage who struggled to translate his undoubted talent to the big screen. Apart from Stir Crazy and Brewster’s Millions (and Superman III! – Ed), many of Pryor’s films flopped. The DVD release of this early effort does nothing to redress the balance.
The plot revolves around Leroy Jones, an orange picker who, through a series of convoluted episodes, ends up joining the worker’s union and losing his job, moving to Los Angeles, getting hooked up with a mistress and having a baby, becoming a manager at the very firm that sacked him, and eventually losing it all and discovering that he is in control of his own destiny after all.
Pryor plays the roles of Leroy, his sex-mad father Rufus, and the town preacher, the Reverend Lenox Thomas, although for the amount of screen time the Right (un) Honourable Reverend and father Jones get, it’s hardly a stretch of Pryor’s acting skills. Furthermore, each character is essentially the same – loud, unsympathetic stereotypes of men who you couldn’t give a stuff about when the credits roll.
If I were to categorise this film, I’d have to say that it sets its stall out as a sleazy sex comedy – not out of place in the era, perhaps – as the goings on in Leroy’s life are just an excuse for him to find himself embroiled in many, many sexual episodes. The problem with that, however, is that I didn’t laugh once. Scenes that are clearly meant to raise a belly laugh or two (such as where Leroy chases a woman around a park before pouncing on her for sexual gratification) are both unfunny and mildly offensive.
In fact, every sexual dalliance Leroy finds himself in seemingly has overtones of violence and sexual abuse. In the first five minutes he tries to force himself on his wife despite her protestations. Perhaps if this only happened once, you could pass it off as an ill-judged joke but it happens again and again. A scene involving Leroy and the Reverend’s wife is particularly alarming as despite her anguished calls for Leroy to leave her alone, a few drinks later and she’s ripping her clothes off in anticipation of what’s to come next (pardon the pun). What’s the message here? That if horny, disgusting men just keep on badgering women into having sex with them and ply them with drink they can have their wicked way with them?
Domestic violence gets a look in too in a scene where Leroy finds out his wife has been impregnated by the Reverend Thomas and literally starts to beat and strangle her. Even for 1977, I honestly cannot imagine what was going through everybody’s minds when they were filming it that made them assume this was a comical scene.
Which Way Is Up? is a curious DVD release. It does no favours for women, and has a leading man that is so unlikeable and potty-mouthed that when his comeuppance does finally arrive at the end of the film, as he finds himself alone and jobless, you don’t feel in the slightest bit sorry for him.
As for extras, a stills gallery, actor and director biographies plus production notes don’t set the world alight.