Picks and Pans Review: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling

updated 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As vanity projects go, Richard Pryor's comedy-tragedy-mea culpa ranks somewhere between All That Jazz and Fellini's Amarcord. The picture is not as self-indulgent as you might expect, but it never transforms autobiography into art, either. As star, director, producer and co-author, Pryor follows the Entertainment Tonight school of filmmaking—he mistakes his career history for the stuff of parables. Without Pryor's notorious 1980 free-basing accident, which provides both the opening and the climax, there would be no movie (and no audience for it). Even at its most memorable, this film is still a celebrity's fan dance, tantalizing the audience with did-this-really-happen fore-play. While Jo Jo Dancer lies near death in a hospital, his alter ego takes the renegade comic on a tour of his life. All the well-known Pryor landmarks are visited: the Midwest whorehouse where his mother worked while Pryor was growing up, the small-town dives where he honed his craft, the Hollywood Hills where he executed his emotional tailspin. As a first-time director, Pryor displays a fine sense of comic counterpoint; he shrewdly follows most of the pathos with punch lines. But Pryor sidesteps the improvisatory, dangerous comedy that first made him popular. Unlike Pryor the performer, this movie proves most successful when it's least angry—-in the early club scenes in which Jo Jo gets an adult education from Damon Runyonesque types and a stripper named Satin Doll, wonderfully portrayed by Paula Kelly. Pryor even homogenizes his happy ending. When Jo Jo recovers his will to live, the cure isn't the balm of comedy or the soul-saving power of performing. He simply recovers because most movies last only about 97 minutes. When Jo Jo Dancer works, it's a surprisingly sweet memoir of a past that never was; when it misfires, you feel like you're watching a remake of It's a Wonderful Life performed by graduates of the Betty Ford Center. (R)

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