Only the incomparable Richard Pryor could make a comedy as determinedly, aggressively sentimental as "Bustin' Loose," which is about eight needy orphans and a $15,000 mortgage that's due, and still get an R-rating. Vulgar language is the reason, but because vulgar language is a basic part of the Pryor comedy method, one longs for his every assault on genteelism in "Bustin' Loose," a film that would otherwise be painful….
[The film] is Mr. Pryor's somewhat obsequious attempt to capture the family audience, though I suspect there are plenty of family audiences who prefer him at his more obscene. This movie is a cheerfully hackneyed, B-picture vehicle …, based on his own original story. It's about a footloose parolee (Mr. Pryor) who is assigned to drive the eight displaced children and their pretty social worker-guardian (Cicely Tyson) from Philadelphia to a farm in the state of Washington, where the kids can grow up clean and untroubled….
"Bustin' Loose" is not unbearable, though a soft-hearted Richard Pryor is not a terribly funny Richard Pryor. There are occasional flashes of the real Pryor comedy, as in a confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan, whose members he tricks into pushing the bus out of the mud, and in another sequence in which Mr. Pryor attempts to con some professional con artists who are in the process of setting up a trapezoid club (as opposed to a pyramid club) in a small town.
Most of the time, Mr. Pryor gives the impression of holding himself in, of being on his best behavior but itching to do something in epic bad taste….
One longs to see not what's happening on the screen but the story that precedes the opening of the film, hints of which are given in the prologue when we see Mr. Pryor in his role as ineffectual thief with a record that includes, among other things, the impersonation of a truant officer and the counterfeiting of Christmas Seals.
That, of course, would be another movie, and not the sort of movie that Mr. Pryor and his associates wanted to make. The aim of "Bustin' Loose" … is to convince us that Richard Pryor is just as sweet and jolly as Santa Claus. Believe it or not.
Vincent Canby, "'Bustin' Loose' Stars Richard Pryor Gone Softy," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), May 22, 1981, p. C13.