Before watching the movie:
I’ve seen many stories about an obscenely rich person obtaining living characters as a personal plaything for themselves or their children, but I doubt any of them were direct references to this story so much as just yet another commentary on how rich people live in a completely different world.
I think Jackie Gleason is primarily known for playing a decidedly blue collar guy, so it seems like an unusual choice to cast him as the eccentric millionaire. However it seems like most of Richard Pryor‘s movies in the 80s were about him reacting to finding himself in impossible situations, so the dissonance of agreeing to something bizarre he doesn’t believe in because he needs the money fits that pattern.
After watching the movie:
Being a writer can’t pay Jack Brown’s bills. He’s a journalist in a one-paper town that doesn’t hire black people, so he’s working on a book that will pay everything once it’s finished, but right now he’s six months behind on the mortgage on his parents’ house, so the bank is going to auction it unless he gets a real job. U.S. Bates dominates all industries in Baton Rouge, and Mr. Morehouse runs the business operations of Bates’s companies, including hiring. Jack applies as a “cleaning lady” and talks his way into it. While Jack cleans alone in one of Bates’s toy stores and amuses himself, he doesn’t realize that Bates’s son Eric, home for a week break from military school, has arrived with a bunch of Bates’s executives, with instructions to pick out one thing in the store for himself. Eric declares that he wants to buy “the black man”. Mortified, but unable to stand up to the spoiled rich man’s son, Bates’s executives shower Jack with large bills until he agrees to go home with Eric. At Bates’s home, Jack refuses to be a child’s plaything, but eventually accepts Bates’s offer of several thousand dollars to stay with Eric for the week. Eric is a menace, riding his toy car through the house, breaking things and causing messes because he can, throwing firecrackers at people, but Jack quickly spots that getting in trouble is the only attention Eric gets from his father, and so decides to give Eric proper instruction in how to behave with other people as a friend instead of reporting mischief. As Eric learns from Jack’s warm attention how to be a better person, he starts to notice how his father uses people, and decides to enlist Jack’s help to write a newspaper of his own about Bates’s behavior.
While there are a few scenes where Pryor definitely got to ad lib, the movie stays pretty tightly on the plot, and takes its time showing the characters organically growing. Scott Schartz arguably has to do more heavy lifting than Pryor, as he has to show a major evolution on Eric’s part, and he delivers it. Gleason fits remarkably well as a blustering user of a rich man who can’t recognize he’s just as spoiled as his son.
The comedy comes from the more humiliating scenes of being at a child’s whims, and from Pryor’s quips and reactions, but there’s a lot of earnest drama here. This is a story of the perversion of having to live in a world where a privileged few get to stack the deck against everyone else, and there’s little but wry commiseration to be had in that topic. There’s not much room for the like of outlandish setpieces, just battles of ego and earnest heart to heart conversations.
This is a much more melancholy movie than I expected. It isn’t as dark as something like Some Kind of Hero, but I expected that one to be a more serious movie because I knew they had to fight to let it be serious. Maybe this was funnier in the 80s when the US Bateses of the world only owned individual cities here and there and the poverty that Jack and his wife live in was something faced by a smaller, more forgettable proportion of the country. It’s an earnest movie, but it’s more feel-good than funny. That probably makes it more memorable, but less of something to come back to frequently.