Most people do not want to see a movie with Richard Pryor in it—they want to see a Richard Pryor movie. His fans prefer to see the comic up close, being funny. They do not need frills like character or motivation: Pryor’s caterpillar eyebrows alone can establish character. But the problem with Pryor’s new comedy, Critical Condition, is that it bends over backward—and, whenever possible, drops its pants—trying to be a real story, until the viewer cannot see Pryor for the plot. By the time he puts on a white smock and starts playing doctor, the audience has script fatigue. Michael Apted, the British director of Coal Miner's Daughter and the compelling documentary 28 Up, has frenetically attempted to make a flat-out Hollywood comedy.
Looking thin and slightly worried, Pryor plays a con artist who, during a courtroom appearance, fakes an insanity plea and ends up in a hospital psychiatric ward. When a power failure throws the place into chaos, Pryor escapes and assumes the identity of an emergency-room doctor. After some sophomoric humor involving hernias and obese, constipated women, Pryor finally emerges from the cellar of proctology jokes and crawls toward light romance. The hospital’s pretty administrator (Rachel Ticotin) admires the way Pryor’s character handles such crises as flying a helicopter into the hospital lobby to improve ventilation. He also lectures a doctor anxious about malpractice suits on the true meaning of medicine. “This is a great job,” he tells him. “We can park anywhere we want!”
In the end, Pryor’s bad-boy character sprouts angel wings, saves the hospital, slugs a deranged killer on the loose—and asks the beautiful administrator to dinner. If the film-makers had let Pryor be himself, he would have lifted one eyebrow at her, darted his eyes sideways and suggested something utterly unquotable. Pryor is actually very good in his serious moments. But by the time Critical Condition starts operating as a comedy, nearly all of its vital signs are gone. Somebody should have pulled the plug.
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