1985 in Film – Brewster’s Millions

Release Date: May 22nd
Box Office: $40,833,132 (US)

It’s hard being someone who was born in the eighties as I first learned about Richard Pryor from his appearance in Superman III. Not his albums or stand up shows but the guy who skied off the top of a skyscraper with a pink blanket round his shoulders. That why my first exposure to Richard Pryor. Not that Superman III is a bad film, but the man in that film isn’t the true Pryor, in that film he’s a man in it for the money. A similar allegation you could level at Brewster’s Millions.

The film is a remake of a fifties film based on the book all with the same barebones plot: a man finds out that his Uncle has died and left him two things in his will, money and a challenge. You can either have some money now or spend your way through some more money and if you manage to get rid of all of it in 30 days then you inherit the true fortune. It’s interesting as this amount of money increases; in the original book in 1902 Brewster has to spend $1m in a year in order to inherit $7m, by 1985 this has increased to spending $30m in 30 days to inherit $300m.

It’s pitched as a zany comedy, something which you can tell by the poster. The film also partners up Pryor with John Candy, himself becoming a mainstream star. It should be a hoot.

Its not though. It all falls a bit flat.

This isn’t helped by Pryor being on the downward slope. Ten years ago he was a comedy firebrand, crossing over and knocking down barriers. Then he set fire to himself during a drug fuelled binge. His stand up comedy still retained that genius for several more years but as a film performer the writing was on the wall.

So this was obviously the right time for Paramount to sign him up to a $40m give picture deal. The problem with this that his edges were being rounded off to make him more mainstream, and those were the edges that made his comedy fly as high as it did.

Also, his closeness with Paramount is interesting considering Eddie Murphy was exclusive to them at the time.

You can draw a lot of parallels between the careers of the two; Pryor opened the doors that Murphy would use to get to even bigger heights than the man that would count as one of his biggest influences.

Whilst Pryor’s stand up is better than Murphy’s, his cinematic choices tarnish his legacy. At the time Murphy was on an insane run of films (48hrs, Trading Places, Beverley Hills Cop) that arguably eclipse all of Pryor’s work on the big screen.

Strangely Brewster’s Millions marks the start of the decline for both men. By the end of the eighties the box office potential of both of them would be drastically reduced.

That isn’t to say you can be too harsh on Brewster, it’s heart is in the right place. Despite being eighty years old the story still works and resonates even more in the eighties, which would soon be defined by the “greed is good” mythos of Wall Street. It doesn’t push this too hard though and would rather aim for screwball comedy but misses the majority of the time.

It’s hard to pinpoint just where the fault for this lies. The director, Walter Hill, could be the issue. Now, just to be clear, Walter Hill is a damn fine genre director. Just look at The Driver or The Warriors. In fact, his last film was the huge success that was 48hrs, one that fully utilised the skills of Eddie Murphy. The thing with that film is that it had the framework of an action film with comedy dropped in it in the form of Murphy. It ticks those western influences that resonate in all of Hill’s work.

Brewster isn’t an action film tinged with western influences, it’s a straight comedy. And whilst it gets a laugh, it feels put together. You doesn’t have that freewheeling aspect that Murphy brought to 48hrs, even Candy is treading water.

It would be a year before Pryor was diagnosed with MS, the rest of his films with Paramount would limp their way into the box office. It’s such a shame that no film really captured what made him so good. The closest is Blazing Saddles, a film Pryor wrote and was to star in before the studio said no.

Brewster’s did okay at the box office, but from here on out it was a long slow decline for Pryor. It’s certainly a step up from Superman III but then thats damming the film with faint praise. One to watch on a sunday afternoon and wonder what could have been.

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