Monday, March 12, 2012

The 'real' Eddie Murphy is gone, because Sherman Klump killed him. How The Nutty Professor explains Eddie Murphy's entire film career.

Pretty much every time Eddie Murphy releases a film like A Thousand Words, Imagine That, Meet Dave, or even Daddy Daycare, the critical world at large starts wondering out-loud about whether we'll ever see the 'return of funny Eddie', which is of course code for 'R-rated Eddie Murphy'.  The implication is of course that Murphy's more family friendly work isn't funny, which is true (Meet Dave, The Haunted Mansion) about as often as it's false (Shrek, Dr. Doolittle).  But what these pundits fail to realize is two-fold.  First of all, we've been wondering when the Eddie Murphy of old will return longer than he was around in the first place.  Second of all, that persona is dead.  Dead and buried, and Mr. Murphy killed it himself right onscreen in front of us 16 years ago.  The very film that launched his most recent 'comeback' is the film that revolved around the condemnation and destruction of the very image that the critics have been clamoring for.  I'm talking of course about Murphy's The Nutty Professor.

Just under sixteen years after its release, the Tom Shadyac remake is remembered mostly for its groundbreaking CGI-effects work, it's supurb multi-character performance by Eddie Murphy (which should have merited an Oscar nomination, natch), and as being the film that restored Eddie Murphy's box office luster after several years of commercial and critical whiffs.  But looking back at the film with the benefit of hindsight, it is something else altogether.  The core arc of the film involves the portly but brilliant and kind-hearted Professor Sherman Klump.  After being humiliated in a nightclub by a brutal insult comic (played in no small irony by Dave Chappelle), he creates and drinks a scientific concoction in order to become what he considered his ideal persona.  One drink later, Klump temporarily turns into Buddy Love, the thin, handsome, outrageously witty and openly abrasive ladies-man that he thinks is the kind of man who he thinks can romance fellow professor Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett Smith). Buddy Love is the 1980s Eddie Murphy persona that we all claim to love and 'want back'.  But Buddy Love's charm quickly turns sour, as he reveals himself to be cruel, heartless, vain, and outwardly hostile to anyone who would stand in his way.  Professor Klump realizes the value of his true self, Ms. Purty rejects the villainous Buddy Love.

The Nutty Professor is a feature-length condemnation and exorcism of the Eddie Murphy that made Raw and specialized in profanity-laden and racially and politically charged tirades (note, in the PG-13 film, Buddy Love is the only one who drops the 'n-word'). Whether I agree with that sentiment or not (I don't, but it's not my call), it's pretty clear that Murphy was making a statement about the kind of humor that he specialized in during his youth (or at least how he perceived that kind of humor decades later).  Buddy Love is the personification of the Eddie Murphy that we knew and loved, but in this film he was clearly not only a villain, but a character to be loathed and eventually feared.  It could very well be Eddie Murphy channeling his inner Bill Cosby.  But societal and racial implications aside, it is clear that Mr. Murphy is showing his disdain for the persona that we all consider 'the real Eddie'.

In a skewed way, The Nutty Professor operates in the same vein as John Wayne's The Searchers, Humprey Bogart's In A Lonely Place, Jim Carrey's The Cable Guy (which came out a week prior to The Nutty Professor), and Adam Sandler's Punch Drunk Love.  All of these star-persona deconstruction movies have iconic movie stars playing their iconic characters in a real-world environment with real-world consequences, where behavior/attitudes that once were considered funny or heroic are now rendered unpleasant if not outright frightening.   All of these films came either at the end of a career or at a major turning point, whereby afterward the star in question rarely played these kind of characters again.  For example, Sandler and Carrey both began playing more normal people who encountered abnormal situations as opposed to the aggressive comedic force.  Eddie Murphy has pulled the same switch, casting himself not as the cause of comedy but as a hapless victim reacting to it.

In Eddie Murphy's eyes back in June 1996, the Eddie Murphy who made 48Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop was not required anymore, so he basically killed the persona while presenting it as an inferior compared to the 'new' Eddie Murphy (the put-upon family-friendly normal guy who reacts while PG-rated comedy happens around him).  He took it a step further in The Klumps, where he not only presented 'Buddy Love' has a harmful and destructive force but an explicitly brain-killing one, as Klump's second Buddy Love experiment resulted in the good professor's brain slowly dying.  I personally don't think this retreat to family-friendly fare is a grand tragedy.  The Eddie Murphy of 1982 was young and hungry with something to prove.  At some point everyone grows up and wants different things, especially once they've attained financial and critical success in their field.  At best, we hope that the quality of the material remains high even as the nature of the material changes.  And while we may bemoan any number of lousy movies that Eddie Murphy has made, there are still plenty of gems.

He shined in the first two Shrek films, gave a strong dramatic turn in Dreamgirls, and offered yet another comparison between old Eddie Murphy vs. new Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger (which contrasted the vulgar, cruel, and abrasive Kit Ramsey with the kind-hearted and innocent Jefferson 'Jiff' Ramsey).  Metro may not be 'good', but it's a brutally violent old-school action picture (basically 48Hrs without the comedy) with a chilling Michael Wincott turn.  Life is a fine drama and I find the first Dr. Doolittle to be a genuinely sweet and open-hearted family comedy.  And it's no secret that I liked Tower Heist more than most people did, and I respected Murphy (and director Brett Ratner) for not letting Murphy's old-school comic creation take over the movie.  Yes Murphy's filmography is littered with the likes of Vampire In Brooklyn, Showtime, Dr. Doolittle 2, and The Adventures of Pluto Nash.  But the man has made 38 films since 1982, and I'd argue around half of them are good if not great.

But if you look at the thirty-year span of his career, it stands to reason that Mr. Murphy has spent more time being (and certainly made more movies) being 'family-friendly' Eddie Murphy as opposed to 'R-rated Eddie Murphy'.  The Eddie Murphy we all pine for existed basically for a few years on Saturday Night Live and then in about a four year span which is defined by three movies (48Hrs, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop).  It stands to reason that the 'real' Eddie Murphy is the one we have now and have had for the last sixteen years.  Murphy tried to tell us the truth back in the summer of 1996.  Buddy Love may be the Eddie Murphy we all claim to love, but the real Eddie Murphy was always Sherman Klump.

Scott Mendelson        


Brett G. said...

Interesting analysis. Never considered it that way.

That said, I do miss the 80s Eddie Murphy. ;)

Geha714 said...

Thanks for mentioning Life. The scene where martin lawrence comes out briefly in the seventies and sees the world changed and then himself changed is powerful.

Ekpookwong93 said...

Good article. Murphy started losing steam career wise in the early 90s because of the perception that his groundbreaking persona, mirroring his real life personality, had become completely unlikeable. That is what motivated the intent of THE NUTTY PROFESSOR remake.

He could have chosen better films along the way but the fact is Eddie becoming a 'softer' performer gave his career longetivity. That brash persona we all grew up with and loved was fitting for the kid he still was when he became the biggest movie star in the world but for the older man who was humbled by a career fall and has been further humbled, I'm sure, by incidents of his own doing (the 'Good Samaritan' arrest in '97, denying former GF Mel B's baby was his etc) putting on a red leather suit isn't really a solution.

jesse said...

You make good points here, but I think for me and maybe for some others, what matters is less that Murphy return to harder-edged or R-rated material (though it would be an interesting experiment) than he just return to seeming like he gives a damn about making a funny or interesting movie! Even Dreamgirls, which shows some effort, is not really a performance of amazing depth -- and neither were many of his comic roles, but at least they were sometimes hilarious.

Bowfinger can be read as Murphy's self-critique; it can also just be read as Murphy actually engaging with a director (Frank Oz) and costar/writer (Steve Martin) who up his game rather than just letting him coast his way to the bank. Whether or not Kit Ramsey represents a rejection of his old persona, Kit is a FUNNY character (weirdly and probably intentionally -- and I haven't seen the movie in awhile so maybe I'm wrong -- Buddy Love comes off as far more abrasive and horrible than genuinely funny, even villain-funny), as is the gentler Jiff. They complement each other and that's the movie where I'm really astonished by what Murphy can do with his patented mulitple-role thing.

So I don't particularly need R-rated Murphy. Hell, he's funny in Tower Heist, and the PG-13 rating isn't why that movie doesn't work for me (it's because Ratner is such a blazingly indifferent director that he can't be bothered to play large chunks of it for comedy OR thrills, because he doesn't really know how to build either, just take advantage of good actors and circumstances). I even find him really funny in I Spy, where he's playing a variation on Kit Ramsey -- cocksure, not especially bright, but (in I Spy) with a gleam of weird childlike innocence.

If any of his family movies made me laugh (and granted, I haven't seen many of the last round), I'd be all for a softer/gentler Murphy. At this point, I just want someone who seems as alive as he did in Tower Heist or, better yet, Bowfinger.


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