1982's "The Toy"
is built upon a vaguely racist/offensive conceit: rich white man buys a black man as a "toy" for his bratty kid. Okay, it's sorta profoundly racist/offensive when you reduce it to that, but the actual movie proves to be... still kinda racist but not quite sooo racist...
Based on a 1976 French film called "Le jouet"
that I've never seen, though I will assume had none of the race issues of the remake. Unlike "Brewster's Millions"
, "The Toy" is NOT colorblind and while it doesn't address Richard Pryor's race constantly, it does address it at key moments throughout.
I saw "The Toy" countless times as a kid. Every time it was on cable. The rich kid's toy collection was like something out of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch
(which was built a few years later... and some of the "lost childhood" themes in the movie must've resonated for MJ... so...??). As a kid, I never noticed anything racist in the movie...
As a college-educated adult who's taken a Donald Bogle
class? Okay, I see the race thing... but not immediately...
Gotta say this: I'm really impressed with Richard Pryor's performance. People may not want to think of "The Toy" and "Brewster's Millions" when they're looking to remember Pryor at his best, but for all the shortfalls of these two movies... he's really good in them
"The Toy" is essentially about a little boy looking for a father figure. His actual father—Jackie Gleason—is an absentee father who sees him for one week a year. Lavishes him with anything money can buy. "Buying" Richard Pryor does not happen as cavalierly as the premise might suggest: none of the adults (Jackie Gleason nor any of his underlings) really want to "buy" Richard Pryor. It's the little kid, young Scotty Schwartz, who really pushes for it. And when the deal is made, it's basically about hiring a playmate for his kid. Richard Pryor makes cracks about slavery but he's free to go at any time.
So where's all the juicy racist shit?
The kid plays a bunch of pranks on Richard Pryor for a good stretch of the movie. When he throws firecrackers at Pryor's feet, the film's sped up
: Pryor's eyes bug out, he starts running about, climbing up a door to get away from the firecrackers. There are some clear aspects of the "coon"
(easily frightened buffoon) and "tom"
(faithful, submissive servant) archetypes in Pryor's character. These can be uncomfortable because you're watching a grown man being degraded by a little child.
Flip-side to this? Director Richard Donner seems to be making homages to silent films during these sequences. It's pure, broad physical comedy, which Pryor excels at. The shot that ends the film has Pryor running off into the distance with a classic/cartoonish circle out to black.
At the further risk of being labeled a "Toy"-apologist, it could be interpreted that Pryor's NOT being degraded during these sequences. That he's intentionally clowning it up to play along with the kid. Faking being scared or surprised in order to delight the kid. Pryor's incredulous reaction to getting a bucketful of oatmeal dumped on him is really excellent. You could dismiss it as over-the-top mugging, but Pryor performs these moments so well and it's not something that can be scripted. It's all on his performance. And he's able to convey shock, speechless anger and disbelief in a way that is pitch-perfect.
But what's really great about Pryor's performance is his ability to bring humanity to the role. He seems to be alternating between two characters in the movie: the clown playmate and the genuine father figure. And he somehow manages to display warmth toward the kid without it coming off as weird or creepy. This kid's got problems. But Pryor doesn't talk down to him. They naturally develop a bond and mutual respect. But the depth and presence that Pryor brings to the role isn't something you see too often these days. Or ever. The fact that he can sell the big, broad moments and the really quiet moments is remarkable.
(The movie doesn't depict this, but the kid eventually grows up to do porn
, so maybe he really did need a better father figure...)
While we're at it, Jackie Gleason's surprisingly good in the movie. Like Pryor, he's a master at broad comedy but manages to completely sell much smaller moments. From the beginning, you get the sense that he longs to connect to his son but isn't sure how to. The ending, of course, is pure treacle, but Gleason acquits himself amidst the rough patches.
The biggest act of degradation in the film actually comes at the expense of Ned Beatty! Jackie Gleason makes Ned pull down his pants in front of Pryor and Scotty Schwartz, just to prove how powerful he is. That's some Neil Labute shit right there.
Oh, and did I mention racism...?
In a plot point that I didn't
recall from childhood, Jackie Gleason's character holds a fundraiser for the KKK...!
Um... WTF, 1982? Richard Pryor and Scotty Schwartz break it up and the fundraiser devolves into a pie-throwing fiasco. Hooray!
All right, admittedly the movie's a bit all over the place. But nostalgia aside, there's some good in it. Some really broad, obvious comedy... that kinda works BECAUSE it's so obvious. When Jackie Gleason shows off an elaborate domino display that he's created, you can see the subsequent gag coming from ten miles away... which sorta makes it funnier.
There was talk of Adam Sandler's company doing a remake of "The Toy"
a few years back. Who knows where that stands now. It's sorta the bleak nature of the industry that these things can appear on the radar and disappear like fucking UFOs. If it did get remade with Sandler and his buddies, I wouldn't have high hopes. I like Sandler but his movies tend to be lacking. Watch "The Toy" and then watch "Mr. Deeds"
... Steven Brill
is no Richard Donner
(Yes, this was a long entry about "The Toy".)