Its buttah, Its chickybaby
I watched "Bowfinger" on DVD a few days ago. I'd seen it before, on its original release. It was the last Eddie Murphy film I watched in a cinema. That was in 1999, almost a decade ago. Its quite a funny film, written by Steve Martin, which means that its got some brilliant one-liners and is full of instances of Martin's trademark clever idiocy. It takes broad satirical aim at a couple of obvious, easy targets: Hollywood and Scientology, and gets laughs out of its digs at both. What is surprising about the film, however, is how great Eddie Murphy is.
Eddie Murphy was cool, once. Young, handsome, funny, sexy, dangerous, he managed to be successful too, somehow. He had the right kind of charisma for movies - he could carry them, generally by just playing himself. When I was a little kid, he was a Megastar. All of his movies were huge hits, and the two Films of his stand up performances - "Raw" and "Delirious" - were the kind of thing everybody could quote and everybody loved.
As a comparison, you can always look at his career today. Over the last decade, a few of his films have been: "Doctor Dolittle" (1 & 2), "The Nutty Professor" (1 & 2), "I-Spy", "Haunted Mansion", "The Adventures of Pluto Nash", "Showtime", "Daddy Day Care" and "Norbit". That is a horrific list. I know, it almost goes without saying - Eddie Murphy's presence now means a film is probably a stinker. I know this, I take it for granted. But the quality of his work in "Bowfinger" shocked me a little, reminded me of how good he could be. Probably still can be if he wanted to. It seems the greatest betrayal of talent I can think of in comedy since Ben Elton sold out and started writing mediocre novels and bad West End musicals.
So I started wondering what happened to him. He had a definite Golden period from 1982, when "48 Hours" came out, until 1988, and the release of "Coming to America". Those six years encompass the releases of "Raw" and "Delirious", and also saw him star in "Trading Places", "Beverly Hills Cop" (1 & 2) and "The Golden Child", as well as appearing regularly on "Saturday Night Live". Pretty much every part of his cultural legacy emerged from that era. Almost everything since has been disposable at best. But the warning signs were there in that string of hits - he had a habit of making bad choices. His stardom made "The Golden Child" successful, its strange premise and odd tone working purely because of his force of onscreen personality. Likewise, "Beverly Hills Cop 2" is a lazy, smug,shabby piece of work, but he carries it effortlessly, and did so to a massive Box Office taking. this poor judgement soon caught up with him, when he made a string of flops, beginning with "Harlem Nights" in 1989 (he wrote and directed that one too) through "Another 48 Hours" (1990), "Boomerang" (1992), "The DIstinguished Gentleman" (1992), "Beverly Hills Cop 3" (1994) until "Vampire In Brooklyn" (1995). He had lost all his clout and all of his cool, and suddenly, in the mid-90s, he seemed a very 1980s kind of movie star.
So he took a chance and dove headfirst into family films. "The Nutty Professor" came out in 1996, he played 8 roles, having done something similar in "Coming to America", and it was a massive smash. Over the next decade he appeared in the occasional non-Family feature (if you can call "I-Spy" or "Metro" that), but he always returned to the safety of a kid-friendly franchise afterwards. He only made himself a more commercial prospect with his work voicing animated features, first on "Mulan"(1998) and then on the "Shrek" series from 2001. He seems as far from the young, whip-smart and fearless, ridculously cocky comedian from "Delirious" as its possible to get.
"Bowfinger" came out a few years after he'd begun this new phase of his career. He made it between "Doctor Doliitle" and "The Nutty Professor 2" apparently. He plays two characters, one of them seeming a parodic version of the "Eddie Murphy" who has featured such a great deal in the tabloid press over the last decade. This character, Kit Ramsay, is a paranoid, megalomaniac star of action movies with an enormous mansion, a heaving entourage, and a questionable grasp on his own sanity, who counts the occurrences of the letter "K" in his scripts ("KKK appears in this script 486 times!"), flashes at cheerleaders and believes Aliens want to impregnate him or that he may spontaneously combust at any moment. Murphy also plays Ramsay's brother, Jifferson, a geeky loser with a speech impediment and a terrible wardrobe. Both roles give him plenty of opportunities to be funny, and he takes them, spewing out Kit's conspiracy theory rants and hamming up Jifferson's inarticulate shyness in alternate scenes. The film reminds you that given the right script, he's a uniquely talented comic performer, and makes you wonder why he doesn't make more like it.
A couple of years ago he was Oscar-nominated for "Dreamgirls" (2006), which allows him to show off his abilities as a singer and dancer, and never requires that he be funny. He seems comfortable with that, somehow. Many comedians seem to fall out of love with comedy over long careers, as if they weary of the sound of the laughter. They long to be taken seriously. Obviously not Murphy, churning out voiceovers and sleepwalking through kid's films every year or so. But he shows absolutely no inclination to return to Stand Up comedy, either. He's reached the level he's reached, and he seems quite happy to stay there, at least for the moment.
And who can blame him, really. He's still instantly recognisable, all over the world. The Megastardom of the 1980s is hard to fade, it remains with him. He came into the place I work a few years ago, and a crowd amassed around him, just watching from a certain distance. It felt like a strange new hysteria had filled the building : A superstar was in our midst. Other stars have shown up before but the only one with a similar effect was Michael Jackson. Eddie Murphy, in other words, has still got it. That crucial component, that X-Factor. He just really doesn't know what to do with it anymore...