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, Humphrey 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 48 Hrs. 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 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 (review HERE), 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 as) ‘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 defined by three movies (48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, with an acknowledgement for one of his very best films, 1988′s Coming to America). 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.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson