Leroy Jones (Richard Pryor) lives with his wife and family in a cramped home next to the large orchard he makes his living in as a fruit picker. Leroy is not simply frustrated at his wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) for getting a headache whenever he suggests sex, but his dead end job isn't providing him with much satisfaction either. Today, however, there is a change as when he gets to work, there are a group of union members causing trouble for the bosses, demanding better rights and asking the pickers to join them. None of them will, until Leroy accidentally falls off his ladder and it looks as if he has nominated himself...
Which Way Is Up? might have sounded like a good idea at the time, to adapt Lina Wertmuller's The Seduction of Mimi to the talents of cutting edge comedian Richard Pryor, but the result was a curiously shapeless ramble through the adventures of a man who cannot settle. Listen to Pryor's fans and they will tell you that this was the perfect example of his screen material matching his stand-up persona, but there was a difference: in this, Pryor really isn't that funny, and more often than not comes across as desperate, even desperate to offend at times.
The aspirations here would appear to be political, with elements of satire raising their heads along with the smutty humour, so when Leroy gets his photograph in the newspaper as a hero of the left wingers, and therefore very unpopular with his superiors at work, he has to flee, but this is made a little easier by the company offering him a bus ticket out of the area. He ends up in the city and trying to romance an attractive activist, Vanetta (Lonette McKee), yet while his fumbling attempts with her are meant to be amusing, how many laughs can truly be wrung from an attempted rape?
And that's not the only time Leroy tries to rape a woman in the pursuit of comedy, and sure, he fails every time, but it all leaves one uncomfortable and excusing it because it was the seventies and that kind of humour was less reined in then doesn't convince. Anyway, Leroy does happen to get romantic with Vanetta to the extent that they have a baby together, and his prospects at work are looking up too when he witnesses a would-be assassin fail in his murder bid on a controversial black leader. His fear leads him to refuse to name the potential killer even though he got a good look at him, and as a reward he is given a better post.
It should be noted that it may well have been this film that encouraged Eddie Murphy to take all those roles where he played more than one character, because that's what Pryor does here, taking on Leroy's father for some by the numbers insult comedy and also the Reverend Lennox Thomas, the preacher who gets Annie Mae pregnant much to Leroy's infuriation. So infuriated that he decides to get the Reverend's wife Sister Sarah (Marilyn Coleman) pregnant too, or sleep with her anyway, cue for another rape gag. Really Which Way Is Up? should have settled on either the sex or the politics here, as mixing a scene where Leroy is unwillingly introduced to a vibrator with the more socially conscious business makes for a film that is pulling in two different directions. It's interesting for what it tried for this talent, and he remains likeable, but ultimately fails. Music by Mark Davis and Paul Riser.