When Richard Pryor--of “Critical Condition” (citywide)--is on a roll, his eyes take on a strange, fiendish-little-boy mixture of desperation and glee, fear and crazy desire. It’s an odd, intense expression. Bulging eyes, neck veins popping, mouth crooked over clenched teeth, he looks like a man holding a snake in one hand and something delicious in the other.

That blend of weird terror and absurd joy permeates much of his best, on-the-edge material. He’s a master at evoking bizarre, near-Dostoyevskian plunges into everyday awfulness, and then defanging them. His greatest stuff isn’t just funny; it’s cathartically funny. He’s a humorist who tears open wounds in order to get the poisons out--and after a top Pryor routine, you’re not just laughing, you feel that your eyesight’s cleared.

Since we often hear suggestions that Pryor has softened up since his 1980 burn accident, it’s a pleasure to report that his lead performance in “Critical Condition” is as good as anything he’s done in a non-concert movie.

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t up to him, though it’s the best vehicle he’s had in years. It’s a mixture of disaster melodrama and socially conscious comedy, set in a New York City hospital during an electrical blackout--and though there’s a lot of talent involved, and the film has a murderously crisp pace, it still somehow misfires.


The writers, Denis and John Hamill (Pete Hamill’s younger brothers) are working from some of the best models of the past: Hecht and MacArthur’s ‘30s comedies--with nods to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. And they’ve tried to write a script loaded with character and social comment, cynicism and overlapping dialogue. (More power to them, even if they’ve failed.)

Pryor plays Kevin Linehan (from the black Irish section of Brooklyn?)--a penny-ante con man arrested in a police mob sting, who faces almost certain death if he serves out his year prison term. Linehan tries to save himself by faking insanity. Just as this scam is going down the tubes, he gets another break. A revolt in the psycho ward, just after the blackout, gives him a chance to escape. But, as he’s destroying his files, he’s mistaken by hospital administrator Rachel (Rachel Picotin) for “moonlighting” Dr. Slattery, forced to step into the crisis-ridden mess, and improvise madly until the lights come on.

It’s another classic movie plot: the cynic redeemed. And the Hamills have an admirably populist attitude that suits Pryor. Linehan is a con man whose quick wits and quicker tongue continuously rally the staff, previously overrun by their corrupt martinet of a boss (Joe Mantegna). But the movie lacks a certain comic relish and stretch, the kind you see in Blake Edwards’ best slapstick or the good parts of “Ruthless People.” The Hamills keep writing Pryor off the hook; he argues his way out of everything too fast. (When the film makers do try one slapstick scene--exploding organ-bottles in a lab--it’s so chaotic and underprepared that it gets vaguely offensive.)

Everything tends to be at too high a key. There isn’t enough modulation--even though Bob Dishy gives a wonderful performance as the litigation-obsessed Dr. Foster. (Dishy is a humanizing force at the film’s center.) In “Critical Condition,” the Hamills put Pryor in the midst of a vast, brawling Breughel-esque beehive of human activity--dozens of subplots, a throbbing rabbit warren of activity.


And they’ve got a director, Michael Apted, who logistically can bring it off, mix social realism and comedy. (Apted, here, puts in enough constant background movement and peripheral business for a whole season of “Hill Street Blues.”)

But the comedy doesn’t really open out. For every scene that works--Garrett Morris’ junkie hernia examination, for example--there are several that don’t. And the resolution is a serious mistake. (The right ending--a different view of Linehan’s insanity plea--seems so obvious you wonder if it wasn’t discarded in an earlier draft.) “Critical Condition” needs either more Chayefsky “Hospital"-style bile or more comic set-pieces for Pryor.

Pryor seems thinner and less devilish since his accident, but his timing and camera sense remain supreme. Since we’d begun to take his excellence for granted--as well as the shoddiness of the movies in which he was usually trapped--it’s good to see that excellence confirmed again. In “Critical Condition,” he’s surrounded by some fine, full-blown comic jobs--by Dishy, Mantegna, Ruben Blades, Randall (Tex) Cobb--a good villain (Joe Dallesandro) and a fetching leading lady (Picotin). And he’s able to feed off them, react with his old pungency to the escalating craziness. Chaos, after all, has been his element. He’s the reigning clown-virtuoso of desperation and life on the edge. Even when the movie holds him back, he’s still able to suggest the grin that thinly covers a scream.

‘CRITICAL CONDITION’ A Paramount Pictures presentation. Producers Ted Field, Robert Cort. Director Michael Apted. Script Denis Hamill, John Hamill. Camera Ralf D. Bode. Music Alan Silvestri. Executive producer Robert Larson. Editor Robert Lambert. Production design John Lloyd. With Richard Pryor, Rachel Picotin, Ruben Blades, Joe Mantegna, Bob Dishy, Sylvia Miles, Joe Dallesandro, Randall Cobb.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).