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Movie Review : 'Millions' Is A Spending Spree With No Kickback

May 22, 1985|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

That blissful daydream: our modest lives changed forever by the arrival of millions of dollars is pretty persuasive stuff--just ask Ed McMahon. So it isn't surprising that "Brewster's Millions" (citywide), in which someone must spend a blooming fortune in a month's time or lose untold millions more, is on its seventh remake, this time by director Walter Hill.

It was an inspired idea to cast Richard Pryor as an extremely minor-league pitcher (the Hackensack Bulls?!?) who becomes the beneficiary of this squirrelly bequest. To watch incredulity, stupefaction, delight, consternation and devilish ingenuity chase each other across Pryor's face, all within the space of seconds, is one of the pure joys of moviegoing.

Also on the credit side of the film's ledger is the presence of Lonette McKee as the paralegal assigned to keep track of every squandered penny; John Candy as Pryor's baseball-playing best friend; Jerry Orbach, the team's manager; Pat Hingle as the only lawyer on Pryor's side, and a fleeting second of Hume Cronyn as the wily relative whose bequest starts all the commotion.

However, that's just about it for the good news.

"Brewster's Millions" isn't bad so much as flat. And flat comedy has about the appeal of flat champagne. It opens promisingly enough in the midst of a Bulls' game: Pryor on the mound, Candy behind his catcher's mask, the scent of disaster in the air. Abruptly, the game is interrupted for the afternoon freight to make its routine trip straight across the outfield. It's a nice device by writers Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris to pinpoint exactly the position of this amiable bunch of losers in the baseball world.

Soon, however, the race to dispose of this vast sum of money gets under way, and the invention runs well behind the spending. In brief, Pryor must not tell anyone the terms of his eccentric relative Cronyn's will: that he must spend $30 million dollars within 30 days in order to receive the second bequest of $300 million.

In all its other screen incarnations, the sum Brewster had to dispose of was $1 million. Child's play these days, I suppose, so the ante was raised, and all the loopholes were plugged--only 5% could go to gambling or to charity; nothing that is inherently valuable could be destroyed, and so on--the money must be spent . Like smoking aversion therapy, Cronyn wants Pryor to be sick of even the thought of spending before he gets his hands on the second half of the fortune. And if Pryor loses, the law firm administrating the terms of the will gets all.

Pryor, with Candy and McKee close at hand, attracts every crackpot schemer and hard-luck case in metropolitan Manhattan. He hires platoons of employees, all at astronomical wages--a personal photographer (Joe Grifasi), a Russian cab driver (Yakov Smirnoff), the head of a squad of guards (Ji-Tu Cumbaca), even an interior decorator (Tovah Feldshuh) to redo his entire floor of hotel rooms.

Oddly enough, it's we who get surfeited and exhausted by the full-tilt spending. "Brewster's Millions' " money fantasy may have flourished better in a slightly less global-conscious era, or perhaps the specter of our national debt hangs a little too heavily today. In any case, the fun wears off fast and a faint distaste takes over as millions spill away to nothing.

Pryor, understandably, is attracted to the beautiful McKee, already engaged to dedicated yuppie lawyer Stephen Collins. Talk about plugging loopholes; Collins also happens to be Feldshuh's ex-husband, and the plot gives them ample time in each other's upwardly mobile company.

Politics enters the last third of the film as Pryor, desperate to throw away more, gives to both of the city's equally corrupt political candidates and, with a memorable campaign slogan, enters the race himself. (As we all know, politics is a virtual sinkhole for money.)

Hill keeps the screen in constant motion, yet almost none of the relentlessly eccentric characters are funny; they're unpleasant and abrasive--and underdeveloped. McKee has the most thankless role of all, 274 variations on aghast outrage at Pryor's wastrel ways. Only her formidable warmth keeps the character from being a common scold.

You sense Pryor trying to build the dimensions of this poor guy, whose real ambition is just to play his own, not-quite-good-enough brand of baseball. It's one of the story's important human facets, yet it becomes neither poignant nor comic. It simply fades out. Win or lose his bet, we will never know what Pryor will do with his life in the one area that money can't control.

"Brewster's Millions" does have a facet that bears special mention: It's one of the few times you see black characters on the screen in anything approaching realistic numbers. There's no way of knowing whether it was Pryor, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver or Walter Hill who were responsible for that notable change, but it's a cheerful milestone.

'BREWSTER'S MILLIONS' A Universal Pictures release. Producers Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver. Director Walter Hill. Screenplay Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris, based on the novel by George Barr McCutcheon. Camera Ric Waite. Production design John Vallone. Editors Freeman Davies, Michael Ripps. Executive producer Gene Levy. Costumes Marilyn Vance. Music Ry Cooder. Associate producer Mae Woods. Sound Jim Webb. With Richard Pryor, John Candy, Lonette McKee, Stephen Collins, Jerry Orbach, Pat Hingle, Tovah Feldshuh, Hume Cronyn, Joe Grifasi, Peter Jason, Ji-Tu Cumbaca.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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