"The Toy," starring Richard Pryor, is a coarsened American remake of a deft French comedy of the same title, which starred Pierre Richard and passed this way five or six years ago. Fluctuating wildly between facetiousness and solicitude, the new version never comes close to reproducing the sane, lightweight charms of the original.
Pryor is probably as much to blame for the miscalculations as producer Ray Stark and his principal slapdash haberdashers, director Richard Donner and screenwriter Carol Sobieski. "The Toy" merely widens the gulf that has been evolving between Pryor's performing techniques in his concert films, which reveal a brilliantly inventive and touchingly personal approach to the audience, and the broader, sentimentalized methods he evidently considers appropriate for general-audience comedies.
The comic hero originally played by Pierre Richard was a discontented reporter working on a paper dominated to a humiliating degree by its imperious owner. A diffident, perceptive sort of guy, Richard's character also possessed a sneaky, spontaneous gift for nonsense, the characteristic that initially attracts the Poor Little Rich Boy to him. As Jack Brown, the protagonist of "The Toy," Pryor is obviously trying to improvise a fresh, personalized role from this prototype, but the impressions get all smudgy and gummy. Far from warming to Jack as a basically stable man confronting the self-indulgent, Alice-in-Wonderland nuttiness of people with too much time and money to lavish on their whims, one is never certain whether he's supposed to be a goofball, an endearing mercenary or an endearing Dutch uncle.
Jack is introduced as an unemployed journalist whose desperation lands him in the household of a Louisiana tycoon named U.S. Bates (Jackie Gleason, obliged to mosey through a fitfully hateful role that takes no advantage of his comic talents). Doing a drag variation on an early sequence from "Stir Crazy," Pryor blows a job as a serving maid. Relocated as a custodian in a department store owned by the big shot, Jack blunders into a job as the hired pal to young Master Bates (Scott Schwartz, a cute and precocious whiz of a rather ghastly, twinkly kind).
There's really no modulation from this style of facetiousness to the episodes meant to impart "serious," instructive sentiments, and the characters don't sustain much psychological integrity as they ricochet from one sequence to the next. For example, the most laborious slapstick sequence is predicated on an ugly notion that comes out of nowhere and immediately returns there as soon as the sequence ends -- that Gleason's character is a secret supporter of the Ku Klux Klan. No reason to believe it before or after, but it justifies one gratutious runaround.
Needless to say, there's a queasy source of discomfort in the remake that the French movie didn't suffer from--the interracial angle. The jocular mood and updated tone of black sassiness fail to obscure the dubious implications of a story that ends up suggesting, after all, that Pryor's character may have a unique aptitude for rearing bratty white kids and may indeed look forward to a prosperous future by resigning himself to such a specialized branch of child care.
Pictorially, the most attractive aspect of the overdressed, overshiny production is the boy's playroom, which probably will appeal to most kids because it seems a treasure house of the spiffiest new toys--in effect, an F.A.O. Schwarz transposed to the home.