The Toy (2012) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA rated: PG for some suggestive humor, brief nudity, and language (would be PG-13 today)
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason, Scott Schwartz, Ned Beatty, Teresa Ganzel, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Annazette Chase
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Carol Sobieski (Based on the film by Francis Veber)
The Toy is built on an interesting premise, lifted from its original incarnation as a 1976 French film, Le Jouet, of a rich young boy who decides to buy a real-life man in order to keep him company when his real father can't seem to find the time to spend with him. Unfortunately, most of where it goes after that is all wrong, as director Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies) struggles with achieving the right tone in order to keep the laughs coming alongside the bits of emotional bonding between a lonely brat and his paid-to-order friend.
The plot revolves around an unemployed journalist, Jack Brown (Pryor, Silver Streak), who finds his back against the wall financially when he needs to come up with $10,000 in a hurry to save his house from foeclosure. So desperate is Jack that he is willing to take any job, which eventually sees him lobby to become the unlikely maid in the employ of newspaper tycoon U.S. Bates (Gleason, Smokey and the Bandit II) -- a job that he's quickly fired from. However, on the way out, Jack is seen goofing off in a toy department also owned by Bates when Bates' son, Eric (Schwartz, A Christmas Story), who spends one week a year away from his military school with his mostly absent father, is given carte blanche to take anything he finds in the store home with him -- and Jack is in the store. Jack doesn't like the thought of being treated like a slave, but the money thrown at him proves too strong to resist, and should be enough for him to be able to save his home. Except that he actually has to survive the young brat's constant mistreatment, as well as the hits to his pride for accepting such a humiliating offer to begin with.
The film rides everything on the appeal of its main star, Richard Pryor, who delivers a decent performance in terms of acting chops during a few of the film's attempts at emotional moments. His interaction with young Scott Schwartz feels genuine, even when the words he must use from Carol Sobieski's (Fried Green Tomatoes, Annie) script aren't the stuff of deep meaning. Where he is let down is in the comedy department, as much of the humor involves bits of not-too-funny slapstick involving Pryor running or jumping from calamities that beset him, including dressing up in a maid's outfit, getting firecrackers tossed at his feet, goop dumped on him from the kid's booby-trap, or his clothing ripped to shreds when he enters a river full of deadly piranha. Donner speeds up the Pryor's reactions to these moments by speeding up the action, though the only good part of fast-motion is that those awful scenes require a few seconds less to view.
Given the talent involved, the film should have been much better, and funnier, instead of one of the most embarrassing in their respective careers. Relying far too much on out-of-date slapstick for laughs, the film might have seemed tired even 50 years prior -- there is even a pie fight! Talk about yawn-inducing. Only the star power manages to keep the film from sinking into the abyss of unwatchability, though one can only wince at some of the awful gags and terribly contrived situations they must try to maneuver their way through and still squeeze out laughs. It says a good deal about how awful a film must be when even comedic greats like Gleason and Pryor don't come out unscathed. The movie really sinks when the elder Bates holds a party in order to fundraise for the Ku Klux Klan, an angle that is not only needless, tacky, and moronic, but also runs counter to the actual plot of a father leaving his only son in the physical and emotional care of a jobless African-American stranger who has every reason to despise him.
Amid this mess, there are some moments that suggest where the film could have gone to be successful. Pryor's quieter moments with young Eric bring forth a few poignant moments that are nearly drowned out by the overwhelming stupidity of the rest of the piece, which makes blunder after blunder, especially becoming awkward through its half-hearted attempts at social relevancy. If Donner and Sobieski would have limited the film's scope to smaller ironies instead of going for big laughs that never come, this could have easily been one of the best films in Pryor's career, instead of a near career killer. In one of the film's larger ironies, one is as embarrassed for Richard Pryor as an actor for subjecting himself to the sadistic nature of this film for a paycheck as one is in Jack Brown for doing the same in the movie.
©2012 Vince Leo