Saturday, September 13, 2014

Let's Do It Again

(PG, Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 mins., theatrical release date: October 11, 1975)

In 1990, Bill Cosby was still attempting a resurgence as a movie star in the wake of his post-Huxtable success, having already bet the farm on the infamously disavowed Leonard Part 6. For the family comedy Ghost Dad, as if there was the decision that nothing should be left to fate, Cosby reunited with friend and frequent 1970s collaborator Sidney Poitier. Poitier had previously directed a trio of star vehicles for himself and Cosby, lighthearted buddy capers which were decidedly not to be lumped in with the rougher-edged blaxploitation bonanza from around the same time. Working under the boutique label of First Artists he helped to found with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen, Poitier chanced into co-starring in and helming Uptown Saturday Night in 1974, and the result was successful enough that Poitier, Cosby and screenwriter Richard Wesley must have said to each other, "Let's do it again!"

And so they did.

Let's Do It Again isn't a sequel in the technical sense, with no continuity or characters ported over from Uptown Saturday Night, but the framework remains faithful. Poitier and Cosby play working class buddies, milkman Clyde Williams and forklift driver Billy Foster, who are also active pillars of their Georgia community, namely the Sons and Daughters of Shaka. Their fraternal lodge, however, is threatened with relocation and there isn't enough donation money to help them move. As the treasurer, Billy hits upon a scheme involving the $20,000 in their kitty: under the guise of a vacation to New Orleans with their wives, Billy and Clyde wager five-to-one odds on beanpole boxer Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker), with Clyde ensuring their windfall by hypnotizing the contender into unleashing his inner tiger. The plan succeeds until one of the thugs they swindle, Kansas City Mack (John Amos), ekes out the truth and puts the muscle on Clyde and Billy to rig the rematch in his favor, preferably to also bankrupt rival turf kingpin Biggie Smalls (Calvin Lockhart).

The result is a loose assemblage of farcical antics, as shaggy as Bill Cosby's facial hair, wherein our proletariat heroes are forced to bluff themselves in and out of various sticky situations. The duo get in to Bootney's hotel room with phony press passes, but are forced to try and sneak out through the window only to interrupt a sexual liaison after they land themselves back in. Their luck gets worse after Mack and his cronies follow them home, whereupon they are busted by the New Orleans police department and call upon the services of their wives as decoys in their risky attempt to pull one more over on the sparring mobsters.

Poitier and Wesley don't really stray too far from the elements of their earlier film, with certain roles and routines that seem interchangeable, but there is an easygoing assurance in the director's style that provides many organic charms. Of course, the unison of Poitier and Cosby as a comedic tag team does bring out the best in each other, with the former's straight-laced yet game goofiness playing well of Cosby's broad, improvisational flamboyance. This mutual sense of comfort also helps out in terms of smoothing over the familiar plotline and bringing moments of wry subversion to the forefront as well as selling the gags, such as Bootney's super-Herculean destruction of various training equipment. An early dinner sequence between the couples goads a randy exchange between Cosby's Billy and his love interest Beth (Denise Nicholas) which alarms Clyde's overly reserved wife Dee Dee (Lee Chamberlin), poking fun at romantic mores whilst allowing all four participants their share of character-building good humor.

Billy and Clyde's comically flashy disguises, each presenting themselves to Mack and Biggie as Mongo Slade, also provide a sublime study in contrast. Poitier's smooth voice and stoic demeanor makes him seem like a credible understudy for an underworld figure, whereas Cosby, in bow ties and wraparound shades, embraces the ridiculous nature of his ruse. This extends to the choice of getting the wives in on the act, with Chamberlin's coyness offset by the studied bluster of Nicholas when she gets in with Biggie. A lot of the funniest set pieces herein involve play-acting of sorts, whether it's Billy trying to convince the aforementioned fornicators that he's a hotel detective or Beth passing herself off as moll for a new Chicago syndicate or the two guys attempting to get past Bootney's manager by claiming that they simply wanted to share a song they wrote for the champ.

Poitier has a keen eye for establishing community both in the settings and in the casting, with a slew of great black talent in support of him and Cosby. Good Times alumni John Amos and Jimmie Walker don't share a scene together, but they each leave a humorous impression that is as welcome here as it was on TV.  Amos himself is flanked by the equally imposing and comically-gifted Julius Harris, perhaps best known from Live and Let Die and the two Black Caesar flicks (“Big Papa!”), as Mack's manservant Bubbletop. Ossie Davis brings his reliable authority to the role of the lodge elder for a couple of amusing sermons, and the opening credits boast a cameo from George Foreman(!) and an early appearance from Jayne Kennedy, future sportscaster and ex-wife of Penitentiary lead Leon Isaac. The soundtrack, meanwhile, was overseen by Curtis Mayfield and vocalized by The Staple Singers for that extra touch of soulful 1970s cool.

Let's Do It Again is surprisingly charming and playful, a reminder that Bill Cosby, at least back in the day, had the chops to make a successful comic screen presence. Like his contemporary Richard Pryor, the 1980s proved to be an erratic period in terms of continuing his cachet, but when he's on, the results are sublime and irresistible. Maybe it was having the right collaborator in Sidney Poitier which helped out, even though I wouldn't recommend Ghost Dad on my death bed, but the resulting partnership worked well for them both here and it helped establish a pleasant sense of goodwill that was dashed the moment Cosby arrived too late and too short at the spy spoof in 1987's Leonard Part 6. Let's certainly not do that again.

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