The same year their far superior collaboration Greased Lightning was released, funnyman Richard Pryor and director Michael Schultz unveiled this peculiar project, a quasi-blaxploitation comedy that was adapted from an Italian art movie. While the source material, Lina Wertmüller’s 1972 film The Seduction of Mimi, blended left-leaning sociopolitical commentary into its satire, Which Way Is Up? features a middling combination of crude sex humor and shallow take-this-job-and-shove-it posturing. One element of the original movie, a poignant exploration of the challenges faced by a blue-collar man who’s trying to navigate a white-collar world, survives the translation more or less intact, but this worthy theme is surrounded by so much stupidity it loses much of its intended impact. And though a great deal of blame must fall on the shoddy screenplay, which is designed to showcase farcical setpieces that never achieve comedic liftoff, Pryor is a major culprit for the picture’s mediocrity, since he plays three roles and therefore dominates the movie from beginning to end.
Pryor is best as the protagonist, Leroy Jones, a poor everyman swept up in absurd circumstances. Specifically, he’s a farm worker who inadvertently becomes a poster boy for unionizing efforts and gets exiled from his small town. Relocating to L.A. and subsequently mistaken for a labor-movement hero, Leroy starts a new life with beautiful activist Vanetta (Lonette McKee), even though he’s got a family back home. Eventually, Leroy returns to his small town for a middle-management job and tries to maintain two homes—keeping Vanetta and the child she had with Leroy secret from Leroy’s wife, Annie Mae (Margaret Avery). This balancing act works until Leroy discovers that a local preacher, Reverend Lenox Thomas (Pryor), is sleeping with Annie Mae. Despite himself being an adulterer, Leroy becomes enraged and upsets the fragile life he’s built for himself. Undercutting the promising aspects of this storyline, Schultz spends way too much time on insipid sequences like Annie Mae’s attempts to get Leroy sexually excited. (She tries everything from S&M gear to vibrators.) Similarly, Pryor’s foul-mouthed rants lose their shock value quickly, especially when he’s dressed up in old-age makeup to play Leroy’s salty father. Having said all that, Which Way Is Up? has a few small insights into the black experience, the lives of the working class, and the vicissitudes of the labor movement. Yet as a whole, the picture is as unsatisfying as its “comically” downbeat ending.
Which Way Is Up?: FUNKY