The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Six

When I last left you in Eddie Murphyland in my first Curious Case of series it was 2006 and Eddie was receiving raves for his first real dramatic performance in Dreamgirls, with his fantastic performance as a drug addicted soul singer.

Many Oscar watchers predicted he would win for Best Supporting Actor. But it wasn’t to be. Alan Arkin took home the statue for his role in Little Miss Sunshine. Many in Hollywood speculated that one part of the reason Murphy lost (when he was a front runner) was his Dreamgirls follow-up, which was released right around the time Academy members were casting their ballots: 2007’s Norbit.

With a screenplay credited partly to Eddie and his brother Charlie, Norbit has its star playing multiple characters and is clearly trying to capitalize on his Nutty Professor success. It was savaged by critics and maybe a little too harshly. It’s not a terrible film by any means – it has some funny moments, though it’s not exactly memorable. Part of the critical drubbing may have been due to the fact that those same critics saw what Eddie was capable of in Dreamgirls. Nevertheless, Norbit was a box office success, earning $95 million.

Eddie would have another box office success in the summer of 2007, voicing Donkey again in Shrek the Third. 

The summer of 2008 brought us Meet Dave, a comedy/sci fi flick geared towards families. It stars Eddie in a fish out of water tale as an alien who’s come to Earth with various characters living inside his “human form”. Sound weird and confusing? Yep, it is. And audiences didn’t know what to make of it – so they stayed away to disastrous box office results. Meet Dave made an awful $11 million, a little shy of its reported $60 million budget. Strangely enough, I actually thought Meet Dave was halfway decent (I’m in the minority on this one) and it does provide Murphy with some great moments of physical comedy.  Not his best by a long shot, but not his worst either.

2009’s family comedy Imagine That didn’t fair much better, earning only $16 million. This one stars Murphy as an overworked Dad whose daughter hears voices that provide him with great financial advice. Sound weird and confusing? Yep, it is. And unlike Meet Dave, this one is just pretty mediocre stuff.

Summer 2010 would bring Shrek Forever After, Murphy’s last time as the beloved Donkey. The wonderful reviews this series had received didn’t apply to the fourth entry, but it still managed to make a lot of money.

Murphy would actually shoot the movie A Thousand Words as his next project, starring as an overworked Dad (see a theme here?) who discovers he only has a thousand words left to say and then he’ll die. Sound weird and confusing? Yep, it is and it’s not too good either, save for a few funny moments. It only made $18 million.

The release date of A Thousand Words would be postponed until March 2012 however to coincide with Murphy hosting the Academy Awards, hoping that exposure would hopefully give Words exposure. Murphy was slated to host the 2011 Oscars, but ended up backing out when the show’s producer Brett Ratner was fired after making controversial comments in an interview.

Murphy agreed to host the show based on Ratner’s involvement, who directed him in a comeback movie of sorts: Tower Heist, released in November of last year. Billed as a return to Murphy being a wise-ass character like we saw in the 1980s, Heist boasts an all-star cast that includes Ben Stiller, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Michael Pena, and Tea Leoni. And while Tower Heist is nowhere near as good as Murphy’s comedy classics, I thought it was a lot of fun. And it was especially fun seeing Eddie play a foul-mouthed jewel thief after seeing him play so many overworked Dads and donkeys over the past few years. Audience reaction was pretty strong too, with Heist pulling in $78 million.

Since that film’s release a year ago, Murphy is not currently attached to any projects. My hope is that he takes a break from family comedies, which he has hinted he will. I hope he starts working with more established directors, many of whom grew up worshiping him (as Heist director Ratner did). And I hope he tries to branch out with more dramatic roles, as Dreamgirls proved he could do well.

Recently, Spike TV ran a tribute to Murphy, with comedic actors like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, and others heaping praise on the star. He deserves it. Murphy is my favorite stand-up comedian of all time. His classics – 48 HRS, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming to America are some of the best comedic movies ever, with other near classics like The Nutty Professor and Bowfinger worth a second mention too. He should’ve won the Oscar for Dreamgirls. And his place in children’s animated features is certainly secure with Donkey. On top of all that, he is probably the greatest performer in the history of “Saturday Night Live”. Not bad, huh? Sure, he’s had his (pretty big) share of mediocre movies, but Murphy is a true comedic genius. He’s been brilliant a lot in movies. In other films, he seems bored. Murphy needs the material to match his immense talent and that hasn’t always been the case, to say the least. But when the material matches Murphy’s abilities, it’s something to behold.

And there we have it – close to 5000 words in this six-part series covering one of my favorite performers. I’ve enjoyed writing this series and revisiting Eddie’s career. I leave you with a clip from Delirious and Eddie’s amazing James Brown impression. Enjoy.

 

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The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Five

The first half of the 1990s would not be a great time for Mr. Eddie Murphy, with big box office disappointments including The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn. In the last half of the decade, he would find his footing, reinventing himself a family movie star with giant hits The Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle, mixed in with big flops like Holy Man. In 1999, he would end the decade with two well-received titles, Life and Bowfinger.

The 2000s decade would begin with the obligatory sequel Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps. It was not nearly as well-reviewed as the 1996 original, but it still performed quite well with $123 million domestically.

The summer of 2001 would bring another obvious sequel – Dr. Dolittle 2. Again, it wasn’t quite as well-received as the first, but grossed a very respectable $112 million.

The real story that summer for Murphy would be his debut as Donkey in the Dreamworks animated feature Shrek. Teaming with Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz, the film’s ironic twist on fairy tales scored huge with audiences and critics. It grossed an astonishing $267 million and Murphy’s Donkey character was singled out as a highlight. Instantly becoming an animated classic (and deservedly so), Shrek would spawn several sequels and give Murphy one of his most memorable characters in some time.

While Murphy’s first three films of the decade were all high grossers, he would make three movies in 2002 and all were box office and critical disappointments. We start with Showtime, a comedy which would team Murphy with Robert DeNiro. I recall being very excited for this one and like most audience members and critics, profoundly disappointed when I saw it. Lots of potential wasted here in a by-the-numbers buddy cop formula comedy. Showtime would only earn $38 million at the box office.

If Showtime was a major letdown, The Adventures of Pluto Nash was an outright disaster. And a historical one at that. Produced on a $100 million budget, this lame sci-fi comedy took in $4.4 million. Yes, you read that correctly. It didn’t even make 5% of its budget back. Ouch. Pluto Nash would join such legendary Hollywood flops such as Howard the Duck, Ishtar, and Waterworld as cautionary tales of massive overspending when the people behind the movie should’ve realized that it wasn’t any good. Like most movies in this category, it’s probably not as awful as its reputation, but it’s still pretty weak.

Murphy would round out 2002 with another flop, the remake of the 1960s TV show I Spy, costarring Owen Wilson. Once again, the movie didn’t connect with audiences or critics, making only $33 million. Much like Showtime, I Spy has lots of potential that was mostly squandered. I will give it some backhanded praise, though. Of his three 2002 disappointments, it’s the best of the worst.

2003 would see Murphy going the family friendly route again with two features. Neither were hits with critics, but both did well at the box office. First, Daddy Day Care. Critics savaged it, but it earned $104 million and I will admit, it has its funny moments and I can see why kids would like it.

Disney’s The Haunted Mansion didn’t do quite as well, but made a respectable $75 million. It’s nothing special, but again it has its moments and did well with the kiddos. What was becoming disappointing to Eddie fans was that these family guy roles did little to challenge this extraordinary performer. Sure, he could be funny in anything, but he was definitely coasting.

Summer 2004 would have Murphy doing the Donkey thing again in Shrek 2. This installment drew raves from audiences and critics again, to the tune of an incredible $441 million at the box office. Shrek 2 still stands as Eddie’s biggest box office hit and it’s hard to see anything ever replacing it.

Eddie has been working a LOT in the early part of the decade, so we would see his longest break after Shrek 2. It would two and a half years before another movie. 

That would turn out to be 2006’s Dreamgirls, a musical drama based on the Broadway play. Dreamgirls would turn out to be a major change of pace for Murphy. It would allow him to stretch as an actor, with his first real dramatic role as a drug-addicted James Brown type singer, James “Thunder” Early. 

Murphy would absolutely hit it out of the park. His brilliant performance reminded audiences the amazing singular talent that Murphy was. He won the Golden Globe award for Supporting Actor and many felt he was one of his way to Oscar. On Oscar night, however, the statue surprisingly ended up going to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine, denying Murphy his own real chance in his career to win. He should’ve won. Dreamgirls stands as the first time Murphy tackles a dramatic role and proves he should have done that more. Maybe three less boring family guy roles. Audiences would respond well too, with the film taking in $103 million.

The Oscar buzz Eddie would gain for Dreamgirls gave him a golden opportunity to expand his career. Would he use that opportunity? We’ll find out in the last installment of The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy, coming soon.

The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Four

Eddie Murphy had experienced three box office bombs in a row in a two and a half year period from 1992 to 1995, with The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn. By the summer of 1996, it had been eight years (Coming to America)since he’d had a critical and commercial hit.

This would change when Murphy decided to remake a 1963 Jerry Lewis hit, The Nutty Professor. The film would reunite Eddie with makeup artist extraordinaire Rick Baker, who did brilliant work on him in Coming to America. Eddie would play multiple roles, including Sherman Klump, Buddy Love, and the rest of the Klump family. His performance in Professor is nothing short of astonishing. By the end of 1996, a number of critics were pleading for the Academy to honor Murphy with a (deserved) Best Actor nomination. It didn’t happen, but The Nutty Professor earned $128 million in the United States and was a crowd pleaser and critical hit. It reinvigorated Murphy’s career. 

Professor is also important in another way: it was Eddie’s first “family film”, rated PG-13. The enormous success of the movie would greatly alter his career choices over the next few years. It would also alienate many of Murphy’s biggest admirers, but that didn’t start with Nutty Professor, which was a major success on all levels. 

Eddie wouldn’t exactly capitalize immediately on its success. Just six months later, he headlined Metro, an action comedy where Murphy plays a hostage negotiator. Clearly meant as a 48 HRS/Beverly Hills Cop type flick, it’s not bad at all. However, it’s not memorable in any way. On the bright side, Eddie doesn’t look bored like he did in Beverly Hills Cop III, but Metro was a not a hit, taking in only $32 million.

The summer of 1998 would bring much better news. Metro was filmed before the massive success of Professor, so his two choices in ’98 would reflect Murphy’s decided upon trajectory with his career. First, he would make his debut in animated films with Disney’s Mulan, which grossed a respectable $120 million (solid number, but nothing incredible for Disney animation).

More importantly, Eddie would remake another 60s-era film, Doctor Dolittle. Here, Murphy plays a doc who can talk to animals. Family audiences were more than ready to watch him in this type of film again and Dolittle outgrossed Professor, making $144 million. It did not, however, receive the very positive reviews that Professor did, something that would begin a trend for awhile. 

The fall of 1998 would bring Murphy one of his biggest box office flops: Holy Man. In the film, Eddie plays “G”, a mysterious faith healer who’s given his own TV show. Simply put, it’s a bad movie and audiences and critics noticed. It earned a pathetic $12 million (its budget was $60 million). Murphy would later admit Holy Man was a dud. Even worse, he said in later interviews that he turned down the massively successful Rush Hour with Jackie Chan to do Holy Man. Ouch.

1999 would bring another two movies for Murphygeared more towards adult audiences. First, there’s Life, co-starring Martin Lawrence, in which the pair play 1930s era New Yorkers who are wrongly framed for a murder in the South and sentenced to life in prison. Yes, it’s a comedy. Life would perform decently, earning $64 million. It was not really a critical hit, but it’s a pretty decent comedy and the two leads do a nice job.

Murphy’s second feature that year would be his most critically acclaimed movie in a while, Frank Oz’s Bowfinger, written by and co-starring another brilliant comedic star, Steve Martin. In the film, Eddie plays two roles and is equally brilliant in both as the huge movie star that desperate producer Martin tries to get in his movie… and the nerdy guy that kinda looks like him. Bowfinger earned a solid $66 million and if you haven’t seen it, it’s one of Murphy’s best roles and greatest movies.

So the 1990s would end on a pretty positive note. Murphy had reestablished himself as a family comedy star with massive hits Professor and Dolittle. Bowfinger showed he could still give a great performance in an adult-themed comedy, too. Yes, there were flops like Metro and especially Holy Man. 

Murphy would enter the 2000s decade with sequels to make and an animated donkey to come that would serve as Murphy’s ATM machine for a decade. And Oscar attention would come too. That’ll all be covered in part five of the series.

 

The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Three

When we last left The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy series, it was the end of the 80s and Murphy had experienced the box office and critical disappointment of his directorial debut Harlem Night and starred in the lackluster Another 48 HRS., where he seemed to just be going through the motions.

The nineties would bring the question of whether Murphy could stay relevant and remain a top box office attraction. After the 48 HRS sequel, he would take two years off between film projects, but he did manage to appear with Magic Johnson and model Iman in Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video.

He would return to the box office in the summer of 1992 with Boomerang, a romantic comedy that received middling reviews, but a decent if not spectacular box office performance ($70 million). The film itself is certainly watchable and has some very funny moments, but is overall just OK. There was certainly high hopes that Boomerang would be a return to form for Eddie, who came up with the story and was written by team behind Coming to America. Nowadays, Boomerang is more interesting because we get to see very early performances from Martin Lawrence, Halle Berry, and Chris Rock.

Murphy’s next three films would represent a tremendous slide in Murphy’s career and box office power. In December 1992 came his first undeniable flop: The Distinguished Gentleman. A mostly lame comedy about a con artist who gets elected to Congress, Gentleman is kind of a mess that switches between broad comedy and attempts at serious political commentary. It fails badly and audiences took note. Gentleman only made around $40 million box office, a severely low number for a Murphy comedy and received bad reviews.

Before we get to Murphy’s next box office failure, Michael Jackson did return the music video favor in 1993 for Murphy’s track “What’s Up With You”, a video that’s truly awful in a rather hilarious way.

This brings us to 1994’s Beverly Hills Cop III. Again, there was hope to be had. The third installment re-teamed Eddie with director John Landis, who helmed both Trading Places and Coming to America. No other way to really this: Beverly Hills Cop III sucked. So much so that Murphy would denounce it in interviews years later. It’s basic premise was Die Hard at an amusement park. It was low on jokes and the action scenes were majorly inferior to other films being released at the time. More than ever, Murphy seems to be sleepwalking through it. Ten years after the original (which made $234 million), the third would gross only $40 million and was a true box office disaster. 

Murphy’s fall at the box office would get even worse the following year. However, in this blogger’s opinion, what followed was fun more interesting than either Distinguished Gentleman or Beverly III. 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn at least had Murphy trying something different. A horror comedy directed by the great Wes Craven, Vampire comes from a story by Murphy and his brother Charlie (who we all remember from “Chappelle’s Show” and his classic stories about Rick James and Prince). It doesn’t really work, but at least it’s a chance to see Murphy try something new. Audiences, however, did not agree. At all. Vampire would be Murphy’s lowest grossing movie ever with a pathetic gross of around $14 million.

With the three box office bombs in a row, it reached the point where David Spade on “Saturday Night Live”, in his Hollywood Minute segment, showed a picture of Murphy and simply stated “Oh look, a falling star.” Rumor has it that Murphy did not take well to the joke, especially considering he was being mocked on a show he made brilliant contributions to.

Vampire in Brooklyn would mark the end of an exclusive contract Murphy signed only to do movies with Paramount. He was eager to move on to other projects at other companies and that is where one of the biggest film comebacks in recent history was made. This happened where Murphy decided to remake a Jerry Lewis comedy and that is where The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Four will begin.

 

The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Two

Alas, the long-awaited sequel to yesterday’s blog post chronicling the highs and lows of one of the greatest comedic actors in film history, Eddie Murphy.

The first post took us through 1984 and with the exception of an already forgotten dud called Best Defense, it was all highs for Murphy. He basically made “Saturday Night Live” The Eddie Murphy Show. A brilliant stand-up special Delirious. The amazing one-two-three punch of 48 HRS., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, which became the highest grossing comedy in history at the time.

What to do next? Well before we get to the movies, he did have a #2 hit on the Billboard charts with “Party All The Time”, produced by Rick James (insert “Chappelle’s Show reference NOW). It’s no classic, but it’s got a catchy beat and you can dance to it.

Back to the movies. There would be a two-year break between Cop and Murphy’s follow-up. Was he being ultra picky about choosing his next project, not knowing how to follow-up on the biggest comedy ever? Doubtful, because when 1986’s The Golden Child came, it was considered a disappointment. Murphy’s star power was enough to carry it to a respectable $79 million dollar gross, but that’s about a third of his previous film’s take. The film itself was pretty bad. Lame script. Lame special effects. And Murphy seems bored during most of the movie. Golden Child represented a major example of what could be called a “paycheck movie” for Eddie. Unfortunately, several more would follow.

Perhaps Eddie just needed a project before the inevitable Beverly Hills Cop sequel because that’s what followed in 1987. It’s not near the equal of its predecessor, but it certainly has its moments and it was a huge hit. Directed by the late Tony Scott (fresh off Top Gun), it definitely is more action-oriented and doesn’t give Eddie the chances to shine that his earlier comedies did. But all in all, not bad.

By this point, Murphy was still the biggest movie star on the planet. He could do whatever he wanted. And in 1988, he reached what many consider a career peak. He re-teamed with director John Landis (from Trading Places) for Coming to America. In interviews, Landis has stated that the Eddie Murphy he worked with on America was much different than the one he worked with on Places. He’s hinted that while he was more difficult, he was also someone comfortable being in control. During Trading Places, Murphy was shooting his second film working for a well-known director. In Coming to America, Landis was a well-known director working for Murphy. The transformation to box office king was complete.

Coming to America is an important picture in Eddie’s career in so many ways. It was basically the first comedy to feature an almost entirely African-American cast. It’s the first movie to feature Eddie playing multiple roles. The barber shop scenes, in which Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall playing nearly every role, are the stuff of film legend today. It’s been said that when the movie came out, many in the audience didn’t realize it was Murphy and Hall until the credits rolled.

I stated in Part One of this series that Trading Places is often what I call my favorite Murphy film. Coming to America is the other one I mention. It’s one of those comedies that when it’s on, I’m watching it. And it showcases Murphy’s immense talents maybe better than anything else he’s ever done.

Coming to America would arguably mark Murphy’s artistic peak, but the following year would prove unsuccessful and Murphy’s first taste of true box office disappointment.

Before we get there, 1989 brought us another album from Eddie. This one was not too successful. For evidence, I submit to you the not-too-suggestively titled track “Put Your Mouth On Me”.

The real disappointment of 1989, however, would prove to be Murphy’s directorial debut Harlem Nights. Eddie would star along with comedy legends Richard Pryor (who Murphy idolized growing up) and Redd Foxx. A 1930s era gangster comedy, Nights was eagerly anticipated. It was Murphy’s first time behind the camera. It had a trio of comedy legends headlining it. But audiences didn’t respond to it. It was too misogynistic. It wasn’t very funny. Pryor was well past his prime at this point. It ended up grossing half of Eddie’s two previous films and was savaged by critics.

I’ve seen Harlem Nights a few times and I don’t think it’s as bad as its reputation. It’s got some hilarious moments. It’s pretty damn ambitious for a first-time director. But it’s also very uneven and ultimately not successful. Murphy seemed to take the reception to his directorial debut badly. He would never direct again.

Murphy would take the easy route for his next film, reprising his role as Reggie Hammond in Another 48 HRS. In 1982, Eddie would be billed second to Nick Nolte. Not this time. Unfortunately, the title is all too accurate. It’s pretty much a copy of the 1982 hit. And just like in Golden Child, Murphy seems aware that the movie is mediocre at best. He looks bored. And also slightly overweight (he’s joked in interviews that Another 48 HRS was his “fat period”).

Eddie Murphy pretty much owned the 1980s up until the very end. Harlem Nights and Another 48 HRS ended that era with two badly received pictures in a row. Worse still, Murphy seemed slighted by the former film’s reception and indifferent and sleepwalking through the latter.

With the 1990s beginning, how would Eddie respond and try to reinvigorate his career?

Stay tuned for The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Three

The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part One

And now for a new category of blog posts that I plan to write from time to time where I focus on one actor, their body of work and the good, bad, and ugly of it.

We start with Eddie Murphy. He is an actor whose career I have followed very closely. The reason is simple: I believe Murphy to be one of the most talented comedians and actors on the planet. As a fan, he has given me some of the greatest comedic experiences I’ve ever seen and disappointed just as often.

He exploded onto the scene at only age 19, when he was cast a feature player on “Saturday Night Live”. In 1980, he joined the show at a low point in its history. Lorne Michaels had just left as producer (he would return in the mid-80s and never leave). SNL was only five years old, but all the players from the original cast had finally left to pursue movie careers – names like Aykroyd, Belushi, Murray, and Radner. 

Many wondered if SNL would survive. Murphy, it turned out, was the only real bright spot on the show for a while. His uncanny impressions of Stevie Wonder and James Brown. His now-classic characters Buckwheat, Mr. Robinson, and Gumby. 

The show would soon find its groove again, but it was obvious that Eddie was destined for bigger things. At age 21, he would co-star in 48 HRS., a buddy cop film with Nick Nolte. It’s one of the most memorable film debuts of all time, was a huge hit, and proved without a doubt that he would be a massive movie star. 

This is one of the most well-known scenes in the film and it’s crazy to think how great he is and this is his first movie.

In 1983, he would headline his own stand-up comedy special Delirious. It is widely considered one of the best stand-up specials of all time and it deserves to be. Murphy was a master at stand-up and was able to effortlessly combine his brilliant impressions with hilarious stories from his childhood. Here he is impersonating Michael Jackson.

1983 also brought us his second film, Trading Places. It’s a classic. Starring with Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Ameche, and Ralph Bellamy, the film is directed by John Landis, the man responsible for Animal House and The Blues Brothers. It manages to improve on Murphy’s already great debut. I go back and forth on what may favorite Eddie movie is, but this is probably it.

The massive success of his first two films meant it time to leave SNL. He would co-star with Dudley Moore in Best Defense in 1984, which Murphy promptly disowned as a piece of junk. This would turn out to be a minor speed bump in his career, however. In that same year, Murphy would headline his first picture: Beverly Hills Cop. 

Originally intended as a starring vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, Paramount ended up going in a different and more comedic direction. Even though 48 HRS. and Trading Places were big hits, it was unpredictable at the time whether Murphy could carry a movie on his own.

What happened? When it was released, Beverly Hills Cop became the highest grossing comedy of all time up to that point. It literally turned Eddie into the biggest movie star on the planet. At age 23. 

I think it’s probably safe to say that no other actor got off to the kind of amazing start that Murphy did. In four years, he went from bit player on SNL to the star of SNL to America’s box office king. It’s the kind of comedic hot streak that we rarely see, though Jim Carrey would experience it a decade later (he’ll be the subject of a Curious Case blog post in the future). 

Excluding Best Defense, everything Murphy touched from 1980-1984 turned to gold. It took only his first headlining role to break box office records for a comedy. 

What would follow? A really bad movie called The Golden Child, which is where The Curious Case of Eddie Murphy – Part Two will pick up.