A light bulb dangles in a Northridge, California motel room. Streetlights glow through cracks in the blinds. Trembling hands dump a bottle of Bacardi 151 on the head of a shirtless Philip Seymour Hoffman. Said hands strike a match. Enter the flames. The screams.

A revolutionary comedian’s head has just caught fire.

Thus begins Funny Guy, the long-awaited biopic of the late Richard Pryor. Barbet Schroeder’s masterful direction and Hoffman’s uncompromising portrayal of the seminal comedian-cum-film-actor raise the bar of what has otherwise become a moldy and fetid genre.

Structuring the film around the infamous 1980 free-basing accident might at first seem movie-of-the-week-ish, yet Schroeder inverts the formula, scorching the celluloid in an emotionally poignant and daringly original roller coaster ride into the heart of a man whose controversial material paved the way for generations of comics. And despite the obvious casting choice, Hoffman’s Pryor smarts convincing from the opening shot in the Travelodge, a shot that will likely go down in film history as “the close-up that wouldn’t end.”

Following the opening sequence, we are taken on a journey into the nonlinear, a journey which sends our preconceptions into a tailspin, thus mirroring what must have been the real Pryor’s fame- and drug-induced sense of turmoil and displacement at the nadir of his career.

Most enjoyable are Hoffman’s pitch-perfect reenactments of Pryor’s on-set breakdowns and dysfunction: the legendary scuffles with Jackie Gleason (played by the late Gary Busey) during the filming of The Toy; fistfights and chair tossing with buddy picture sidekick Gene Wilder (Michael Rapaport); and brazen attacks on Columbia Pictures execs.

In one particularly memorable scene, a coked-up Pryor storms into a producer’s office and threatens to tell the press that said producer threw fried chicken at him if a six-figure fringe bonus isn’t awarded on the spot, to which the producer promptly replies, “You’re blackmailing me.” The comedian then takes two steps forward and proffers the single-best-line of Eric Roth’s 165-page screenplay: “If blackmail is a crime, then I guess I’m guilty, motherfucker.”

The emotional core of the picture, however—where Schroeder truly mingles in the mouth of meta—is the re-staging of Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life is Calling, in which Hoffman as Pryor directs Hoffman as Pryor as Hoffman as Pryor as Jo Jo Dancer—the conscience of a comedian in a not-too-cryptic biopic within a biopic.

Because Hoffman has long been known as “the” method actor of his generation, what surprises here is that the same man who spent months re-typing the text of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in preparation for his role as Truman Capote chose not to drop any weight, shave his strawberry-blond scruff, or research in any capacity for the part of Pryor. During a recent video-conference (the actor is currently on location in Tunisia filming Paramount’s remake of Ishtar) a turban-clad Hoffman said, “Fuck you. I am Richard Pryor. Watch the movie. Who’s the ethereal and corporeal embodiment of that man? Oh wait, shit, guess what? It’s me.”

Interwoven with the scenes of egomania and debauch are the flashback glimpses into Pryor’s troubled youth: growing up hard in his grandmother’s brothel in Illinois; his one-year incarceration in military prison for stabbing a white cadet; his idolization of and early influence by Bill Cosby (Anthony Edwards), and of course, Pryor’s seven volatile marriages to five different women (all played by Dakota Fanning).

Although Pryor’s history of domestic abuse was well-documented in the late comedian’s 1994 memoir, Bitch-slap: ‘Cause I’m Richard Pryor, Mo’fucka, Schroeder more or less strays from this element of the comedian’s life, arguing that it would diminish, rather than enhance, the overall depth of the film. (A film which, ironically, is now facing an NC-17 rating due to a scene in which Hoffman forces Fanning, at gunpoint, to snarf a rail of angel dust from, well, exactly the sort of surface that earns such ratings.)

“This will be the most complex portrait of a man since Terence Malick’s Brown Bomber [referring to Nick Nolte’s visionary portrayal of the boxer Joe Louis],” Schroeder said. “I wanted to focus on the soul of that man, on the greatness in him. Did you know that he once held a helicopter pilot at gunpoint and demanded he fly him to and from the set of Ghostbusters? He wasn’t even in that movie! I mean, excuse me for saying so, but those are some deep fucking layers.”

Deep layers—and then some. And nowhere are they in more evidence than in the re-staging of Pryor’s legendary stand-up concerts: “Live on the Sunset Strip,” “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and “Are you Serious?” It is here that Hoffman (with the help of Welsh cinematographer Donald McAlpine’s compressed close-ups) truly draws out the “soul of the man,” and it is in these scenes that the actor has undoubtedly sealed his second Academy Award victory for best actor.

In the final shot of Funny Guy, and perhaps its most poignant moment, a tuxedo-clad Hoffman performs onstage during the “Holy Smoke!” concert. He strikes a match, holds it up before his audience, and says, “What’s this?”

A long pause.

“This is Richard Pryor running down the street.”

Run down the street indeed, and see this exhilarating, heartfelt, and monumental tour de force that might very easily be the best picture of the year.

Reviewed February 2, 2009

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