“You’re a dumb idiot”
TriStar Pictures—in a bid to put Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor back onscreen together after Stir Crazy and Silver Streak proved successful a decade plus earlier—agreed to the former’s understandable stipulation. They’d act in See No Evil, Hear No Evil only if Wilder was allowed to take a crack at rewriting its script, one that already passed through two separate screenwriting teams and producer Marvin Worth‘s hands during preproduction. It makes sense: no one of their incomparable comedic stature would want to simply cash-in without ensuring some level of artistic integrity, right? Well, let’s just say I’d love to read the atrocity that was the original treatment because this borderline offensive buddy comedy is barely worth a rental fee let alone its 1989 ticket price regardless of Wilder’s assistance.
Born from a high-concept plotline putting a deaf man and blind man at the scene of a murder, director Arthur Hiller unfortunately possesses little to work with once the joke of his leads’ handicaps is introduced. I won’t deny that I laughed when Wilder’s hearing-impaired Dave Lyons yells at a truck driver who almost killed him while Pryor’s sightless Wally Karue screams back thinking he’s the one being berated. It’s hilarious. I even looked forward to watching their comedy of errors evolve from easy situational gags into smart writing and inventive set pieces. Not much later, however, all hope was lost as the same obvious joke repeats itself. Accused of homicide with only the memory of a woman’s backside and her perfume fragrance respectively, we’re to laugh because their arresting officer can’t comprehend why neither knows which he’s questioning.
Alan North‘s Braddock frustratingly shouts at Wilder behind his back only to receive silence from both in return. Gene’s character can’t read lips when he can’t see them and Pryor’s Wally knows the question isn’t directed at him since it’s about whether or not they “saw” a woman at the crime scene. So Braddock roars again and again, louder and louder. It’s like an Abbott and Costello bit—genuinely funny as a five-minute sketch, but excruciatingly tedious when drawn out over 90-minutes. Seriously, how many times did the filmmakers believe we’d laugh at the same exact situation before getting wise to the ruse? One? Two? Three? After they let the blind man lead a high-speed chase behind the wheel? After the deaf guy standing on the car’s hood can’t hear the parking brake release warning?
It’s a real shame because the plot has promise. Two fugitives from the law who only possess the sensory abilities of one man if they’re looking and listening in precisely the right direction at all times? Fending for themselves while the police and the killers serendipitously framing them for murder are on their tails? It’s gold as long as you have the wherewithal to make them into heroes above the dumb luck aftermath of obvious jokes. You can poke fun at their handicaps and embrace the inherent comedy, but also find a way for the burdens to give an advantage necessary to survive. Neither Hiller nor the six credited writers get this. They’d rather drop their leads into broadly painted situations that are only escapable after first falling prey to the issues each presents their afflictions.
In other words: Dave and Wally can only reclaim their freedom if everyone searching for them is completely stupid. The cops must be imbecilic enough to let a deaf guy and blind guy elude custody; villains Eve (Joan Severance) and Kirgo (Kevin Spacey) must have big enough egos to constantly underestimate two people they have dead to rights countless times throughout the film. And not only that, but those two assassin/fixers have to have a boss who is—well, I won’t ruin Anthony Zerbe‘s Sutherland’s problem. I’ll simply purport that you’ll roll your eyes at the sheer audacity of how conveniently he’s written. At least Severance proves a strong feminine contrast to the men, though. Before she’s unceremoniously transformed into a purely sexual tool to titillate and be “mistakenly” groped by a dirty old blind man of course.
There are a couple of jokes that hit their mark, though. So it’s not a complete waste. Heck, it may be worth a view for Spacey’s over-the-top British smarm and weird protrusion on his cheek a quick Google search posits was a cyst he later had drained alone. Sadly there’s very little of worth beyond the occasional chuckle and viewing it may in fact diminish the adoration you have for Wilder and Pryor. I really hoped this would at least be a decent introduction to their cinematic partnership to lead me towards digging up the rest, yet here I am shaking my head at how juvenile the comedy was and how amateurish their performances. Both seem lost in a Stepford-esque haze of optimism, wide-eyed and innocent even when engaged in fisticuffs with a brutish bar patron.
Wilder wakes up halfway through to share his trademarked crazily manic delivery, but one can’t watch Pryor’s drunken performance without acknowledging his multiple sclerosis had already begun to dismantle motor functioning. These two comedians are better than this sloppily written escapade forcing them to trivialize sensory impairment. A couple attempts are made to delve deeper into the psychology of their ailments but nothing sticks emotively. Rather than sympathize with their plight after discovering neither was born handicapped, we simply use that knowledge to allow for a blind man to punch effectively because he knows the positions on a clock face we originally believed he’d never had the opportunity to see. There just isn’t enough onscreen for you to care about Dave and Wally’s wellbeing or nearly the amount of laughs to be worth your time.