The story of "Brewster's Millions" has appeared, in various film guises, six times before, and the new movie leaves the reasons for making it again obscure. Despite the considerable skills of filmmakers and cast, it's a pallid, unexceptional comedy played at half speed.
Most of the problems stem from the story's one-joke structure. Montgomery Brewster (Richard Pryor), a minor league relief pitcher and "a relief pitcher in the minor leagues of life," stands to inherit $300 million from a long-lost relative, but there's a catch -- first, he has to spend $30 million in 30 days. He can't have any assets at month's end, he can't simply give it away, and most important, he can't tell anybody about the deal.
So the spending spree begins, with some of the manic edge that made "Let's Make a Deal" such a guilty pleasure. He rents a hotel suite for $1 million a month, and redecorates it; he buys $600,000 worth of wines at an auction and throws a party open to the public; he invests in Icebergs International, a Rube Goldberg scheme to bring water from the North Pole to the Sahara. His buddy Spike (John Candy), his battery mate in the minors, can't figure it. Miss Drake (Lonette McKee), the paralegal assigned to keep track of his expenses, disapproves.
The "message" of "Brewster's Millions" is that it's love, not money, that matters; McKee has nothing to do but glower in disgust at Brewster's largess, and glower she does, her eyes simmering in indignation, while he tries frantically to win her over. This was a standard theme in the '30s, and what's interesting about the new movie is how out of sync it is with today's mores. McKee, with her speeches about using money to help people, just seems like a gasbag and a scold; she keeps telling us there's something wrong with Pryor's compulsive spending, but it seems awfully fun. Pryor's best moments come not when he waxes gloomy over his extravagance, but when he jumps into the mood, screeching "Lafite? You guys like Lafite?" to a crowd of guests off the street following him into a swanky cafe.
When will someone come up with a project equal to Richard Pryor's peerless talent? In his concert movies, Pryor steps out of the contemporary pack of gagsters and insult artists; he's a classic comedian whose humor grows out of characters and situation, and resonates in social context. Weaving a skit, Pryor can even get inside the head of a dog; with his talents for physical comedy, he can make a comic-strip blur of speedy motion almost visible on stage. None of this remains, though, when Pryor is transferred to a conventional narrative (remember "The Toy"?). It's almost as if he's too big for a standard story.
In his stand-up routine, one Pryor character plays against another; but in "Brewster's Millions," he has no one to play against. McKee is given her one note, and so is Candy; except for a delicious little dance he performs up and down the stairs of Brewster's Plaza suite, he's not asked to do anything but look flabbergasted. And the villain of the piece, Stephen Collins as an uptight, devious yuppie lawyer, has no weight. He's simply silly.
Director Walter Hill deserves credit for trying different things -- this is his first straight-out comedy. But instead of directing "Brewster's Millions," he just throws transition sequences at it: old-fashioned collages complete with spinning headlines (to evoke the movie's Depression-era sensibility); time-lapses of money piles dwindling; briskly edited baseball sequences; and the obligatory montage of Brewster on magazine covers.
And at the heart of the screenplay (by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris) is a phony populism. Brewster's most successful money-wasting scheme comes when he decides to run for mayor against two corrupt politicos, dominating the airwaves with a campaign for "None of the Above." Politicians -- they're all bums! Curiously, Brewster avoids the obvious money-losing scheme of investing in a motion picture.
Brewster's Millions, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some profanity and sexual themes.