Richard Pryor Vehicle Stalls Somewhere Between Edgy and Heartfelt.
DIRECTED BY OZ SCOTT/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 10, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
On his audio commentary track of the disc in question- the 1981 comedy Bustin’ Loose– film historian and critic Sergio Mims details just a few examples of how its star Richard Pryor was “a complicated man”. It’s tempting, then, to also apply the “complicated” description to Bustin’ Loose, as well. The film arrived as Pryor, having hit peak box office fame with 1980’s Stir Crazy, also made news as victim of a tragic drug-related incident that left half his body terribly burned. In light of both of those facts, Bustin’ Loose takes on a strange companionship. The end result may be several things, but alas, “complicated” it is not. In such, it feels inadequate in service of Pryor’s persona.
Throughout the 1970s, Pryor had achieved the rare feat of garnering mainstream fame via a standup act rife with confrontational and confessional racial humor. Audiences expected more of that sort of thing in any given project that the comedian was involved with. Though not a crummy actor, Pryor operated in his own tenor, meaning that his films were his films– devised and built to spotlight his unique nature. When he attempted to deviate from this comfort zone, he was often the square peg. (See: Superman III).
Bustin’ Loose, being a Pryor solo vehicle (as opposed to the string of Stir Crazy follow-ups he would go on to do with co-star Gene Wilder), puts itself out there as an R-rated socially aware romp in which the star is bustin’ loose of social constraints. In actuality, it’s something much softer, perhaps unintentionally bustin’ loose of the edgy career that brought him to such a movie-star echelon. In it, he plays a Philadelphia con man and thief who’s not above using the race card to swing things in his direction. Caught and on trial, he is faced with either returning to prison or driving a busload of unwanted misfit children across the country to live on a rural farm. Soon enough, he’s behind the wheel of the world’s rustiest rust-bucket on wheels, replete with the aforementioned eight kids and their caretaker (played with thankless rootedness by the great Cicely Tyson).
Bustin’ Loose is not a good movie. At its best, it doesn’t know if it wants to be a fish-out-of-water story of a hardened urban criminal finding his heart of gold the country, or a hot-button commentary. At its worst, its opportunizing the genuinely not-funny plights of the eight youth characters to accommodate an uneasy romp for Richard Pryor. He supposedly has the charm and people skills to convince a whole group of fully robed and hooded Klansmen to push his stuck bus out of the mud in the middle of nowhere (a particular tone-deaf sequence in our current moment in time), but he also constantly radiates very nervous energy. There’s a sharp tension throughout the film, as Pryor all too often reads as fuming angry. At one point he hauls off and hits one of the kids, who remains crouched over in what appears to be real pain for the duration of the shot. This is no doubt bleed-over from the comedian’s very troubled real life.
As directed by Oz Scott (though Mims points out that a second uncredited director, Michael Schultz, did a mending pre-release pass), Bustin’ Loose bears the kind of low-rent production values not uncommon in mainstream films of this era. Visually cluttered and often almost too dark to see, it’s obvious that no one was putting a ton of effort into this movie. This new Blu-ray edition looks and sounds as good as the film is probably capable of. It also offers the previously mentioned Sergio Mims audio commentary (a pretty good, informative listen) and a smattering of promotional extras. On the whole, though, Bustin’ Loose remains a film unable to break free of its own many issues. It’s not complicated, it’s just messy.