It's New York City and out of work actor Harry (Richard Pryor) is working as a waiter at a posh dinner party, but things go wrong when his stash of grass gets mixed up with the cook's ingredients, and he is sacked after the guests appreciate the salad a little too much. Meanwhile, his best friend Skip (Gene Wilder) is an out of work playwright working as a store detective who accuses the wrong woman of stealing a dress, so is also sacked. Skip sees this as a great opportunity for them both to get out of the unfriendly city and head down South on a road trip so they can live the good life. Alas, this is easier said than done as they soon find out...
Written by Bruce Jay Friedman, this was the second teaming of Wilder and Pryor after the success of Silver Streak, but which didn't really challenge that film as the best example of their buddy movie comedy. That's not to say it isn't funny, because it certainly has its moments, but they're all concentrated on the first half of the movie leaving a more adventure-flavoured storyline to take over. What happens to them en route to their destination is that their camper van breaks down, they have to scrape together the money to repair it, and get jobs advertising in a bank, dressed as woodpeckers. All is going well until two criminal types "borrow" their costumes, stage a robbery at the bank, and leave Skip and Harry to be framed for the crime.
It doesn't matter that the duo are innocent, the law just wants someone put away for the crime and Skip and Harry are sentenced to one hundred and twenty five years in prison for the theft they didn't commit. So it is that they are placed in a tough penitentiary and forgotten about by all except their lawyer, who fights a losing battle to appeal. Pryor and Wilder each play up to their screen persona, with Wilder gentle, sweet natured but naive and Pryor more streetwise yet lacking in bravery and frequently burying his face in his hands when he sees the mess he's in. As they try to get by in prison life, they end up in various comic sketches, most of which hit the mark, but some of which are simply examples of the stars indulging themselves where the script has let them down.
After a while, a plot emerges. The warden (Barry Corbin) is a gambling man, and what he and the warden of the other local prison do is hold rodeos where they each bet on their respective inmates with a talent for bull and horse riding, and enjoy the rewards, none of which are ever seen by the prisoners. As unlikely as it seems, Skip displays a talent for riding the mechanical bull the warden has in his office (one of the less believable jokes which unfortunately the plot hinges on), and is picked to represent the prison in the next contest. But Skip's new friends tell him not to accept the offer until he can strike a bargain that will assist them in a prison break.
While some of Stir Crazy will set you laughing, when the escape plan is put into action the gags dry up almost completely. Wilder's business meekly trying to encourage everyone to get along can be highly amusing - the expression on his face when approaching the biggest, meanest prisoner in the canteen is hilarious - and Pryor's cocky but cowardly act is similarly effective ("No shit!"), but they get split up too often when we want to see them in partnership. Wilder gets the too-young-for-him love interest in the shape of the lawyer's cousin (JoBeth Williams), but all Pryor gets is the unwanted attentions of a gay convict (Georg Stanford Brown) who befriends him for comedy value. The rodeo scenes are unconvincing when it is obvious that a stunt double is being used, so in effect the film starts off promisingly but fizzles out around about the halfway point. These two comics deserved more durable material. Music by Tom Scott.
Confident, handsome and iconic, this American-born leading actor first made an impression in the 1950s in films such as The Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, The Defiant Ones (which he spent chained to Tony Curtis) and Porgy and Bess. By the sixties he was a star, appearing in A Raisin in the Sun, Lillies of the Field (for which he won an Oscar, the first black actor to do so in a leading role), The Long Ships, The Bedford Incident, To Sir With Love, racially themed thriller In the Heat of the Night and racially themed comedy Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
By the seventies, Poitier had turned to directing, usually light comedies, with western Buck and the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night and its sequel Let's Do It Again, A Piece of the Action, Stir Crazy, Hanky Panky, musical Fast Forward and Bill Cosby vehicle Ghost Dad. He then concentrated on acting once more, with appearances in Shoot To Kill, Little Nikita, Sneakers and The Jackal.