Eddie better

Murphy shows acting muscle, but The Nutty Professor weighs him down

For the past five years, Eddie Murphy's career has been one of the lingering reminders of how the hollow successes of the '80s didn't quite translate into the '90s. His two biggest hits financially--the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies--were part of the slick, shallow style of movie-making pioneered by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, an artistically questionable partnership that also produced Flashdance and Top Gun.

There's no denying that Murphy was lightning in a bottle for five years or so, but when the lightning escaped--that is, when Murphy failed to modify his image for an impatient, fickle generation, one that spawned MTV and Attention Deficit Disorder--he seemed like a dinosaur. How many curse words did he have to insert into his stand-up routines before people realized he wasn't funny anymore? Add to that his notorious prima donna public persona and some dull, self-loving movies like Boomerang and Vampire in Brooklyn and failures like Another 48 HRS., where he's so obviously passing time as to be actually insulting the audience, and it's little wonder we began looking around for a fresh face.

(That face turned out to be Jim Carrey. Frankly, I've been surprised that Carrey--who's been on top a little more than two years--hasn't overstayed his welcome. Of course, it's always possible that he has, but we're all just too lazy to find someone to replace him.)

With such a patchy resume, it would be hard to view The Nutty Professor without profound reservations. The story, a Jekyll-and-Hyde update about obese scientist Sherman Klump (Murphy), who discovers a formula for making himself instantly thin, was originally a vehicle for Jerry Lewis; the last thing Murphy's career needed was to follow the trajectory of Hollywood's most egregious comic anomaly. (People today always attack French culture by noting that they still like Lewis' films.) But while the movie overall is a heavyweight bore, bloated with far too many fart jokes to be taken seriously, something remarkable emerges from the flatulent rubble: a performance by Murphy of such depth and versatility as to erase all prior doubts about his abilities. Like Tom Cruise, Murphy has made too many movies that merely reinforce his image as a charming smartass. It took him too long to catch on to the fact that his early work in 48 HRS. and Trading Places worked because he related to the viewers at their level--he was their surrogate equal, who cut through the bullshit of bureaucracy and racism and empowered himself (and them) by sheer will. There's a scene in Beverly Hills Cop where Axel Foley laughs his butt off watching two men walk down Rodeo Drive clad in shiny leather-and-vinyl cowboy duds. Murphy's mocking laughter seemed sincere and, oddly, not cruel at all. Four years later, he was wearing the very same outfit in Raw, and his edge had dulled. He was no longer one of us, but the enemy--one of Them.

The Nutty Professor comes close to changing that, re-establishing the link between star and audience that had been all but lost. In the movie, Murphy plays seven separate parts, mostly members of the Klump family, including a mother, father, brother, and grandmother. Each character obviously has distinctive physical characteristics, and if Murphy's performance had ended there, The Nutty Professor might come off as nothing but a gimmicky bathroom comedy. (Actually, it is.) But there's some real acting going on in these scenes--especially the two dinner parties that form the spine of the movie--and what makes you sit there, mouth agape, is that it's all Eddie. In the past, Murphy has shown the ability to find the pathos within a character, but his work here, especially as the jolly, painfully shy Sherman, exceeds expectations. His speech rhythms and facial expressions, his mannerisms and eye movements, are unique to each role. He's doing something that Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness might have done in their day, and he's equally good.

Ironically, Murphy's least successful creation is Sherman's thin, cocky alter ego, Buddy Love. Buddy's an inveterate egomaniac, and like all egomaniacs, he isn't very interesting. In fact, he's the closest of all the characters to Murphy himself. That just begs the question: Is Murphy criticizing his own image--and, by extension, his past wayward movies--or is the irony completely lost on him?

Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because his gifts are squandered in this drab little movie. With the opportunity to do something great, why does the director, Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), resort to awful Jerry Lewis-esque contrivances? From the priggish school dean who makes Bewitched's Larry Tate seem like a soul of consistency to the needless, innumerable dumb gags that appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Nutty Professor is like an anchor around the neck of its star. You sense that if Shadyac only would have had the confidence and wisdom to see what an expansive personality he had in Murphy, he would have let him fly loose, like a balloon; we'd probably still be waiting for him to fall back down to earth.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

The Nutty Professor. Universal. Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett. Written by David Sheffield, Barry Blaustein, Tom Shadyac, and Steve Oedekerk. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Opens June 28.

 
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