Movie review: ‘The Toy’

toyWhen you think of director Richard Donner, you might first think of the “Lethal Weapon” franchise or, maybe, “Superman” or even “The Omen” (click here for my review) from the horror genre. You can even go back to TV’s “The Wild Wild West” in 1966 for his directing work. However, his most underrated effort has to be “The Toy” with entertainment legends Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason. Both actors do a great job (at least briefly at times in “The Toy”) but the pure moments each has with the other makes this critical bomb much better in places than you’d believe. Besides, it has the great Jackie Gleason and that’s a treat and quite a blast from the past (if you don’t remember he was in “Smokey and the Bandit” – click here for my review).

‘The Toy’
(1982; 102 minutes; rated PG; directed by Richard Donner and starring Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason and Ned Beatty)

THE BEST OF ‘THE TOY’ IS ONLY A FEW MINUTES, BUT IT’S GREAT

I’ve written before about how a movie can have parts that, taken separately, are good but when you put them together it just doesn’t measure up. I’ll say that for “The Toy,” too, because it has some truly excellent interpersonal scenes between the characters, but is dragged down pretty far for the majority of the film. The actors’ work is worthy of critical accolades at times, but Hollywood stereotyping and lack of quantity of quality make it an overall loser.

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In re-watching the film recently, I was taken aback by just how good Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason and Scott Schwartz, who plays Gleason’s son and Pryor’s charge here, can act. I’m sorry to report that I cannot say they manage to maintain that level with any consistency – otherwise this would have been an instant classic while in reality “The Toy” was correctly panned by the critics. Still, it was a hit at the box office but at times today (32 years later) is an embarrassment.

The great scenes are few and far between, but the chemistry between the actors truly showcase’s each’s strength.

For example, when Schwartz, who plays “Eric Bates,” acts like the bratty, petulant kid he’s playing here, it is a Hollywood writer’s view of how a bratty kid behaves. The boy obviously is overplaying the role. However, when Schwartz’s character gets real, say when having a serious talk with Pryor, who plays “Jack Brown,” about becoming a man, both actors’ work is elevated and you’ll be surprised at the depth of emotion they can bring to the screen.

Gleason, who plays millionaire “U.S. Bates,” switches on an off from a somewhat stereotypical rich jerk or cruel businessman to an actual father who is concerned about and wants to connect with his son. It’s unfortunate that Gleason couldn’t bring the same emotion to more parts in “The Toy,” but with the thin material he had to work with it becomes surprising he’s able to do as much as he does with the truly emotional parts. Plus, he is so smooth here that the ease of his work disguises his talent.

It’s too bad that there are too many scenes setting up the emotional moments that make this film. At the beginning of “The Toy” the boy goes to dad’s store and told he can buy anything (of course he winds up “buying” Pryor) and it takes too much time so that Pryor can fool around while wearing headphones. Still, there are gems, too, such as when Pryor and Schwartz are running around and burst into the German nanny’s room and hilarity ensues with her lust.

I’ve already given you the basis of the “The Toy” but I’ll quickly outline it: Pryor is an aspiring journalist who cannot get a job at Gleason’s newspaper so he winds up as a “cleaning lady” in a Gleason-owned store. The boy, who’s visiting home from military school, wants to “buy” him because he needs a friend and Pryor looks like fun. Cue the slave references (and Pryor’s wife in the film is part of “Klan Watch” and is an activist attorney against segregation and corporations) but also the underlying theme of how people will sometimes do anything for money.

Of course Schwartz and Pryor bond, form their own newspaper, expose some of Gleason’s bad sides and the whole thing brings all three closer together as well as solve issues intermingled in each of their separate lives.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the principal cast:

  • Pryor does many things very well in “The Toy.” He is tremendously funny as well as supremely watchable and does good physical comedy – but not so well with some of the slapstick he has to work with here. When Pryor is most genuine is when he’s talking one-on-one either with Gleason and Schwartz. It’s too bad he didn’t have a better script to work with. Pryor was in “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder (click here for my review) and did an even better job in “Harlem Nights” with Eddie Murphy (click here for my review).
  • Gleason easily spins through this one and you can tell at times that he was just cashing a check. However, his talent as an entertainer flashes through consistently in “The Toy” but, like Pryor, is best one-on-one. His casual disdain while ordering minions about is done well and doesn’t come off as contrived (as it all too easily could have been). “The Toy” isn’t a top-of-resume effort for Gleason, who is best remembered for TV’s “The Honeymooners” and was nominated for an Oscar in “The Hustler” with Paul Newman.
  • Schwartz does a very underrated job as the kid actor here. He fails only when the script lets him down – that is frequently since the adult writer stereotypes the bratty kid like so many Hollywood efforts before and after. Still, it isn’t a bad all-around effort. Schwartz is best remembered as “Flick” in “A Christmas Story” (click here for my review) and also was good in “Kidco.”
  • Oscar nominee Ned Beatty plays “Sydney Moorehouse” and is an executive in Gleason’s business. Beatty does more consistently solid work here than any other actor and he best handles a scene being denigrated by Gleason with aplomb. I liked Beatty in his small part in the spy thriller “The Fourth Protocol” (click here for my review) and was nominated for “Network.” He will always be remembered for “Deliverance” with Burt Reynolds.
  • The best character in the supporting cast is “Barkley” played by Wilfrid Hyde-White. He is the butler who leavens everything for Gleason, even though the pair have a checkered past between them. Hyde-White does the great butler act a year after John Gielgud’s “Hobson” in “Arthur.” Hyde-White doesn’t hold a candle to Gielgud here, but does a smooth and effective turn. He was in “My Fair Lady” and “Let’s Make Love” with Marilyn Monroe.

The film’s plot includes Pryor and Schwartz disrupting a lawn party that includes an undercurrent of the Ku Klux Klan and being part of an escapade where Schwartz ruins a formal dinner party.

Overall, there’s some to like here and I believe the most disappointing thing about “The Toy” is that it hasn’t held up at all. Its best scenes are still great and I truly enjoyed re-watching them, but the film is hopelessly outdated and often makes you shake your head. It’s too bad with the talent here that I have to write that impression.

The Toy” was the 14th ranked film at theaters in 1982 with $47.1 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” with $359.1 million and at No. 2 was “Tootsie” with $177.2 million. Films from the same year that I’ve reviewed include the sensational teen comedy “Porky’s” (click here for my review) and “TAG: The Assassination Game” (click here for my review).

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Schwartz was 11 playing the role of 9-year-old “Eric.”
  • I guess Schwartz didn’t listen to Pryor’s good advice about men and women in the film, since IMDb.com notes that the boy would go on to a further entertainment career in adult films.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In his E! True Hollywood Story bio, Scott Schwartz says that the hardest part of making this movie was working with Jackie Gleason. Because Schwartz was trained to memorize his lines, he would always get thrown off by Gleason’s improvisations, resulting in his getting yelled at repeatedly by Gleason.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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