Directed By: Michael Schultz
Starring: Richard Pryor, Lonette McKee, Margaret Avery
Line from this film: "I saw... a woman! A short woman with two tall midgets!"
Trivia: Several lines at the beginning of this film were sampled in 2 Live Crew's 1989 hit "Me So Horny"
A year after he and Gene Wilder set the box office ablaze with Silver Streak, Richard Pryor broadened his comedic skills by playing not one, but three roles in 1977’s Which Way Is Up?, a comedy about a California farm worker named Leroy Jones (Pryor) who, thanks to some bad luck, has his picture taken alongside union leader Ramon Juarez (Luis Valdez). Though far from a rabble-rouser himself, the picture convinces the bosses that Leroy is pro-union, and, instead of beating him to a pulp, they offer him a one-way bus ticket out of town.
Leaving his frigid wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and his elderly father Rufus (also Pryor) behind, Leroy heads to Los Angeles, promising to send money home as soon as he finds steady work. There, he meets Vanetta (Lonette McKee), a union organizer, and the two quickly fall in love. But before she commits herself completely to him, Vanetta makes Leroy promise that, as long as they’re together, he won’t sleep with another woman… not even his wife. He gladly agrees, but about a year later, fate intervenes again, and Leroy is made an executive with his old company and transferred back to his home town. To keep up appearances, Leroy moves in with Annie Mae, while Vanetta and their young son, Leroy Jr., live in a furnished apartment across town. Still, despite the arrangements, Leroy keeps his promise to Vanetta, resulting in a series of misunderstandings that end with Leroy seeking revenge against the local minister, Rev. Lenox Thomas (Pryor yet again), who “comforted” a distraught Annie Mae a bit more intimately than he should have.
The supporting cast is good (especially Avery and McKee as the two women in Leroy’s life), but, start to finish, Which Way Is Up? was a vehicle for Richard Pryor, who, In addition to the lead role, also plays “Pops”, Leroy’s eternally horny, foul-mouthed father (in the opening scene, “Pops” is having sex, loudly, with a woman half his age while, one room over, Leroy is striking out with Annie Mae). With his profanity-laced observations, it’s “Pops” who gets most of the early laughs, while Pryor’s turn as Rev. Lenox Thomas dominates the movie’s second half (the scene where the good reverend puts on his “healing glove” is hilarious). Yet as funny as these two characters are, it’s his turn as Leroy that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Richard Pryor was leading man material, able to handle the romance as well as the comedy (he and Lonette McKee make for a convincing couple, and their scenes together are actually quite touching).
Though he would star in a number of fine comedies throughout the ‘80s, including Bustin’ Loose, Some Kind of Hero, and Brewster’s Millions, Which Way Is Up? has always been my favorite Richard Pryor film. And with this 1977 comedy, we actually get three Richard Pryors for the price of one!