' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Uptown Saturday Night (1974)

During the Q&A session following the screening of his "Gimme the Loot", my #5 film of 2012, at last year's Chicago Film Festival, writer/director Adam Leon mentioned that for preparation and inspiration prior to filming he had watched the 1974 streetwise comedy "Uptown Saturday Night." I immediately made a mental note to watch it. And if "Uptown Saturday Night" was responsible in any way for the funny, romantic, all-around marvelous "Gimme the Loot" then I am grateful for its existence. Otherwise...

Look, I don't think "Uptown Saturday Night" is bad, per se, but it’s all so passive for a film that seems intent on being about good times in the face of bad times. It’s intended as a buddy movie crossed with a caper but looks and feels like a socio-docudrama straining to be funny. Then again, I am of a different time, a different culture, and perhaps the hands of time have left me immune to the charm it possessed to audiences in 1974. But I am who I am, I watched it when I watched it, film, as life, goes on.

The buddies are Steve Jackson (Sidney Poitier) and Wardell Franklin (Bill Cosby). The latter is a cabbie, the former is a factory worker who has just kicked off a stay-cation. Thus, Wardell prods him to head uptown on Saturday night to Madam Zenobia’s. Once you’re in you won’t want to leave, says a pal, except that once they’re in they can’t leave – at least not right away – on the count of a few crooks sticking up the place and making off with all the money and all the wallets and all the jewels of all the patrons. This includes Steve’s wallet which contains a lottery ticket which he learns the following day contains the winning numbers. So off go Steven and Frank, off into the urban wild, in a desperate attempt to track down that lottery ticket. HIJINKS!!!

Except the hijinks are just so……un-hijinksish. Well, that’s not necessarily right. They have the ethos of hijinks, I suppose, in the form of a fidgety private eye (played by Richard Pryor) who hides under his desk and goes out the window to avoid the people after him and an encounter with a couple hoodlums named Big Percy (because he’s REALLY big!!!) and Little Seymour (because he’s REALLY little!!!), who, of course, also excels at karate which, of course, means a karate kick will inevitably send him crashing through (not merely into) the bar. Am I being snobbish when I say such things make me role my eyes as opposed to guffaw? Perhaps, but then Detective Nordberg rolling down the ramp at the baseball stadium in his wheelchair, hitting the rail and hurtling into the air does make me guffaw. It’s all about how a scene is put together.

“Uptown Saturday Night” was directed by Poitier himself. It was third directorial outing but it was his first foray into comedy and it shows, suffering significantly from pacing issues – both as a whole and within scenes themselves. It takes the film a whole 30 minutes to even get to the true thrust of the narrative – that being the lottery ticket escapade – and while it is understandable that the film wishes to establish setting and tone, well, this is simply far too long for a film yearning to exist in the realm of the zany. But the zany itself is short on zaniness – relying on performers to elevate situations that have no juice to begin with and falling back on jokes as obvious as Kevin James falling down. For example, our intrepid duo goes to visit a congressman who makes a big to-do about being upstanding at which point…..a lady of the night walks through the door. That’s really the best the movie’s got.

At least until the obligatory car chase to wrap things up (head in hands) which is filmed with as much know-how as those teenagers that re-did “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Cosby livens up the situation here and there and I always enjoy Poitier being able to cut loose rather than assume the archetype of Statesman but, that said, Poitier’s best moment here is the beginning when he banters with his wife while simultaneously conveying with body language the physical toll his job at the factory takes. This is exemplary acting – exemplary acting that has no place in this kind of movie.

No comedy caper has been less madcap and so drawn out. The material demands bebop and instead we get cool jazz.

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