Livin' Large 

The return of Eddie Murphy

The return of Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy’s performance in The Nutty Professor is too nervy and electrifying to be called a comeback; it’s more like a career intervention. Watching him sleepwalk through sucker bait like Vampire in Brooklyn, you just kept thinking: This is the same guy who used to do such spot-on parodies of James Brown and Bill Cosby? The same guy who dismantled the redneck bar in 48 Hrs.? From Beverly Hills Cop on, as he tricked out routine mannerisms with diminishing inspiration, you could visibly chart Murphy’s decline. Like Burt Reynolds, his face got thicker and heavier, with a drugged lion’s eyes, while he flashed his dimming smile like someone plugging in a beer sign.

Somehow, though, the automatic pilot who sputtered through The Distinguished Gentleman and Beverly Hills Cop III has vanished. In his place is a comic actor of incomparable vitality and range—a better one than even the high points of 48 Hrs. and Saturday Night Live promised. As a whole, The Nutty Professor is broad, briskly staged, and surprisingly consistent. As a showcase for Murphy, however, it’s an astounding tour de force—a daredevil display of talent without equal in recent movies.

In the 1963 original, Jerry Lewis made the title character a lopsided compendium of his worst physical features: a scrawny, bucktoothed milquetoast with fright-wig hair and Mr. Magoo eyesight. Murphy goes Lewis one better. As Prof. Sherman Klump, the brilliant, enormously obese head of a college research facility, Murphy’s features are buried under an avalanche of latex blubber. His eyes dart anxiously from under plump eyelids, and his jawline is obscured by massive jowls; his belly is large enough to erase the equations he writes on a blackboard.

But Murphy doesn’t disappear inside the makeup. He does something I would never have thought possible at this point in his career: He disappears into character. Murphy gives Sherman a courtly charm and a deep, melancholy voice that’s like the middle range of a cello; at the same time, he maneuvers his improbable bulk like a man trying to pilot a wayward zeppelin. The physical details of Murphy’s performance—the distant, look-anywhere-else-but-at-me gaze Sherman affects in public; the awkward, apologetic way he galumphs through a crowd—are precise. They’re also immensely affecting.

When he meets a pretty new professor (Jada Pinkett), Sherman summons up the nerve to ask her on a date. The date’s a mess: They go to a comedy club, and Sherman’s unable to escape the pitiless taunts of a comic, a demonic jack-in-the-box played by Dave Chappelle, who humiliates him before the crowd. (The stoic look on Sherman’s face, which all but begs the intervention of a merciful God, shuts up anyone in the audience still laughing.) Faced with one indignity too many, Sherman sneaks into the university lab. He gulps down an experimental potion, which slenderizes the genetically overweight through DNA restructuring. The next morning, Sherman awakens—but not as Sherman.

In the Jerry Lewis version, the Hyde figure who emerges, Buddy Love, embodies the creepiest aspects of Lewis’ showbiz-animal personality: the grotesque self-love, the oily fake sincerity. Buddy is Jerry Lewis’ acknowledgment that his comic genius is all-consuming, beyond control—more than a little scary. So it makes sense that Murphy’s Buddy Love turns out to be...well, Eddie Murphy. Or at least the braying caricature Murphy becomes when he’s just cashing a check.

Buddy is the skinny guy that Deal-A-Meal pushers insist is trapped in every fat person. Once unleashed, he’s the insatiable sexual appetite Sherman suppresses in favor of food. He’s also the Eddie Murphy of the Beverly Hills Cop movies—the guy with the too-easy smile, the bullhorn laugh, and the curdled self-confidence. At first Buddy’s a riot. When he goes back to the comedy club and plays a cutthroat round of the dozens with the jester who cut down Sherman, we’re on his side. Soon, though, like Pinkett’s professor, we start to miss Sherman’s humanity—just as we’ve missed Murphy’s.

If these two performances, Sherman and Buddy, were the limit of Murphy’s achievement, The Nutty Professor would be a triumph. It’s with the arrival of Sherman’s large, boisterous family that Murphy claims a place in the comic acrobats’ hall of fame. In need of bucking up, Sherman returns to his parents’ dinner table with his immediate family. There’s a burly brother, a doting mother, a cantankerous old grandmother, and a lusty, barrel-bellied father who issues blasts of gas like Miles Davis taking a solo.

In each role, that’s Murphy under Rick Baker’s peerless makeup. He’s also there in a flabbergasting cameo as a Richard Simmons-style fitness guru. But he never winks at us from behind the masks. It would’ve been so easy for Eddie Murphy to play the women as shrill LaWanda Page wanna-bes and the men as gruff Robin Harris clones; he would’ve scored some laughs without working too hard. Instead, he gives four moving, affectionate, and finely detailed performances, any one of which deserves praise. (The critic Donna Bowman has suggested that each family member represents a different tradition of African-American humor, from Redd Foxx to Moms Mabley.) For a backboard-shattering slam-dunk, Murphy does them all in the same frame. Perhaps it’s because of the painstaking technical process, but Murphy—who, especially in recent movies, seemed offended if the audience noticed anyone else onscreen—does the first great ensemble acting of his career, even if he does it playing every character.

Like Murphy, the script by David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, Steve Oedekirk, and director Tom Shadyac is sweet-natured and likably silly. Even the outrageously crude family scenes have the ring of real behavior. Shadyac, who let Jim Carrey run roughshod over the first Ace Ventura movie, shows considerably more control here: He even pulls off several hyperbolic sight gags worthy of Jerry Lewis’ directorial mentor, Frank Tashlin. If Shadyac and his other writers fumble a few of the comic situations—the hangover scene that’s so funny in the original is dropped here with a thud—they compensate by allowing Murphy room to improvise and experiment.

And Murphy rises to the challenge. The movie includes a lot of the morphing effects that The Mask made so popular, but the star renders them unnecessary. At one point, Buddy launches into one of his smooth-talking raps, only to begin speaking, incongruously, in Sherman’s gentlemanly drawl. Murphy doesn’t overplay it: His quizzical expression—a psychic hiccup—is all that’s needed to suggest personalities in collision. You’d have to go back many years to find this kind of prodigious comic acting at the movies—back to Steve Martin in All of Me or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and from there all the way to Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. That Eddie Murphy can make you laugh until you’re lightheaded is no big revelation. That he could metamorphose, this late in a free-falling career, into such a fine and disciplined actor is the most miraculous transformation of all.—Jim Ridley

The Empress’ New Clothes

You can learn a lot about the movie Striptease just by looking at its poster. There, front and center, is Demi Moore, naked as the day she was born (or perhaps nakeder, if rumors of implants are to be believed). Her arms and legs are wrapped around her body in perfect position to cover her marketables, but her eyes stare out dully, as though she were prepared on demand to unfold her limbs and give the audience, the filmmakers, and the studio who paid her a record $12.5 million exactly what they’re waiting for. The advertising wizards who dreamed up this campaign don’t care what Striptease is actually about—as far as they’re concerned, it’s about the top female star in America doffing her clothes.

Given the defiantly stripped-down approach of the ad, perhaps what’s most shocking is its tag line: “A comedy where you least expect to find one.” Despite the utter lack of humor or even whimsy anywhere on the poster, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect Striptease to be a comedy. After all, the film is based on an acclaimed comic novel by Miami crime writer Carl Hiassen, with a screenplay written and directed by noted comedy filmmaker Andrew Bergman (whose previous films include the very funny The In-Laws, The Freshman, and It Could Happen to You). It’s a discouraging sign when a studio with so much comedic talent on its side has to reassure the audience that its film is not just a peepshow.

Truth be told, there are quite a few laughs in Striptease, although none of them emerge from Moore’s exhibitionism. It’s the supporting cast of oddballs (the kind that pop up regularly in Hiassen’s books) who, like burlesque comics, keep the movie lively between the nudity. There’s Burt Reynolds as an egomaniacal, drunken, sex-crazed senator who’s taken with stripper Erin Grant (Moore) and is willing to risk his political future to bed her. There’s also Robert Patrick, hilarious as Erin’s ex-husband, an enterprising louse who steals wheelchairs for a living. Best of all the sidemen is Ving Rhames, a strip-club bouncer whose pragmatic, down-to-earth, rough exterior hides the soft heart of an idealist—the sort of man who dreams up frivolous lawsuits and gets angry when the video store is out of Free Willy.

Unfortunately, Striptease doesn’t belong to the chorus (which also includes noteworthy turns by Armand Assante and Paul Guilfoyle). It’s about the woman on the poster, and about her character’s attempt to earn enough money stripping to pay for a custody battle. At least, that’s the plan before her dancing draws the attention of Reynolds’ lawmaker and accidentally embroils her in a scandal involving political double-dealings and the powerful Florida sugar business.

The play of quirky characters in a colorful plot is meant to build into escalating farce. But the rhythm of Striptease is off—partly because the comedy breaks every 15 minutes for a dance routine, and partly because Moore plays her character as a noble suffering among loonies. Every time she looks in the eyes of her beloved daughter (played by Moore’s daughter, Rumor Willis), Moore mists up and soaks the dialogue. Every time she dances—stiffly, to the strains of Annie Lennox—she makes the movie feel hopelessly sordid. Her deer-in-the-headlights expression and matter-of-fact stripping have nothing to do with her character’s discomfort, and everything to do with Moore’s own cynical understanding of her obligation to the moneymen.

During Moore’s nude scenes, Striptease offers unintentional commentary on America’s twin obsessions with celebrity and sex. There are plenty of bare breasts in Striptease, but it’s Moore’s bare breasts (or the promise of them) that distracts the audience, drawing us out of the movie. It’s hard to watch Moore strip and not think about her on Barbara Walters or in the tabloids, demonstrating her strip moves and talking about how stripping frees the soul—all her cinematic evidence to the contrary.

Striptease seems to view stripping more negatively than positively—though ultimately it’s as ambivalent about stripping as it is about politics, Florida, or anything else in Hiassen’s novel. Why this ambivalence exists is hard to say. It may be that writers with eccentric voices are difficult to translate to the screen. Ask any filmmaker who’s tried to retain the flavor of a Stephen King novel, awkwardly profane dialogue inclusive.

More likely, though, it was the moment somebody in a suit signed Demi Moore’s paycheck that everyone involved grew overly cautious, afraid to let the much funnier Reynolds, Patrick, and especially Rhames run off with the leading lady’s movie. So the colorful characters are shoved aside, and the success of the movie is left in the inept hands of the poster girl, who fills almost every frame with nothing more than the threat of revealing herself. That, I fear, is more than any one movie can bare.—Noel Murray


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