See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
Written by: Earl Barret, Arne Sultan, Eliot Wald, Andrew Kurtzman and Gene Wilder
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
I’ve often wondered if Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor would have been an even more famous comic duo if Pryor had been allowed to play the Cleavon Little role in “Blazing Saddles.” Pryor was Mel Brooks’ first choice, but he was rejected because of his mercurial personality. A Wilder/Pryor pairing could have cemented them as all-time greats, giving the two of them a headlining role in one of the greatest comedies of all time. But then again, Wilder was never really supposed to be in “Blazing Saddles” either (he replaced Gig Young), so maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. As it stands, they’re still pretty great together.
“See No Evil, Hear No Evil” was the next-to-last onscreen pairing of Wilder and Pryor. They would both largely disappear from the Hollywood scene soon after. Wilder plays Dave Lyons (no relation to this Dave Lyons), a deaf shopkeeper. Pryor plays Wally Karue, a blind man with a gambling problem and in need of a job. Both men try to hide their handicaps, usually without much success. This seems like a depressing setup, but both characters are generally well-adjusted,
I apologize if this seems a little rushed from here on out. I lost most of my first draft of this review to a brief, weather-related power outage in LA. This city’s failing infrastructure has now impacted you all.
Wally eventually ends up working in Dave’s shop, just in time for both of them to witness a murder. Dave saw the murderer but heard none of the crime. Wally heard the whole thing but didn’t see anyone. Naturally, they’re both hauled in and wrongfully accused. Apparently the NYPD is not handicapped-friendly. Soon, they’re on the lam, running from the police and the real murderers, the femme fatale Eve (Joan Severance) and her slimy partner Kirgo (a fully-haired Kevin Spacey, doing some form of British accent).
The pairing of Dave and Wally results in many predictable comedy scenarios. They turn out to be formidable fist-fighters - Wally’s the muscle, Dave’s the instructor. And what they lack in driving skill, they make up for in ingenuity. Many of these sequences are funny, such as Wally’s attempts to relay an officer’s instructions during a mug shot photo session. Some fall flat, like an extended bar fight sequence that goes on far too long.
But the real weakness of the movie is the plot. It’s a real snoozer involving a rare coin that’s actually some sort of microchip in disguise which does something that you don’t really care about or need to know. Spacey and Severance are stock villains. And there’s a twist involving a crime boss that’s not really necessary. One look at the long list of writers tells you everything you need to know. A couple probably came up with the ‘story,’ a couple probably wrote a few jokes and Wilder almost assuredly came in to write to his and Pryor’s strengths.
Unfortunately the movie is weighted too much toward the boring plot and overly manic comedy centerpieces and not enough toward letting Pryor and Wilder do what they do best: be themselves. There is a clear division between the stock situations and jokes provided by the script and the flashes of brilliance brought by two amazing comedians. These flashes are enough to merit a weak recommendation, but are otherwise drowned out by the mediocrity of everything else.
Both lead actors would soon experience tragedy in their lives. Pryor’s health began to deteriorate due to multiple sclerosis. Wilder’s wife, Gilda Radner, passed away around the time this film was released. But “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” stands as part of a tribute to the comedic genius of these two men. Both achieved greatness. This is but a small part of that achievement.