Saturday, May 8, 2010
Theory and reality have an interesting and amusing relationship, existing eternally at odds much like Jacob and his rival on Lost (about which more is forthcoming at about 3 or 4 in the morning the night after the series finale, in the new feature “TV by Bowes,” so named because I have a name that commands respect! In theory.) Theories are often optimistic, idealistic, envisioning a world where things happen as we'd like them to, and reality is a testicle-seeking missile with a nuclear warhead affixed to the tip. Reality, in short, fucking sucks, and this is why the lone constant in this universe is Murphy's Law (oh, irony . . .)
This cheerful philosophical proposition originated from a bit of cogitation yours truly was undergoing about the collective desire shared by seemingly all serious artists to have complete creative control over their work. Ironically, independent artists such as myself don't have this problem at all. My first movie, Byron Invented Boredom—a short coming-of-middle-age drama—came out exactly the way I wanted it to. I was auteur, God, Kubrick. Mortals trembled before me. But, ya know, I made the fucking thing for the price of two DV tapes and a couple drinks. But artists working within the commercial infrastructure of the movie, music, and other entertainment industries have to worry about bean counters and evil white guys in suits telling them what they can and can't do, unless they make those selfsame evil white guys so much fucking money everyone's too busy doing Scrooge McDuck backstrokes through mountains of cash to tell the artist what s/he can and can't do.
One such artist was Eddie Murphy. At his peak in the 80s, he was as big as movie stars are capable of being. While single-handedly rescuing Saturday Night Live from Jean Doumanian's evisceration of the show (even if Eddie was the only funny thing on the show, ya gotta start somewhere), he began making movies. The first three pictures he was in—spanning the ages of 21 to 23—are all legitimate all-time classics (48 Hrs, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop) that each created or redefined their respective genre. 48 Hrs invented the buddy cop movie, the form of the modern film comedy was created by John Landis, who directed Trading Places (although it can be argued, probably by me in a contradictory future post, that Landis' Animal House actually was more influential, but fuck off, I'm trying to make a point), and Beverly Hills Cop melded action and comedy in a far more symbiotic manner than any previous attempt. The driving force and most memorable element of all three was Eddie. From the moment Nick Nolte shambles down that hallway in the jail in 48 Hrs while some tonedeaf troll (Eddie) is murdering "Roxanne", Eddie owned the screen. The number of movie actors who have even come within a mile of Eddie's level of raw charisma can be counted on one hand, and you'll have spare fingers. Eddie was so awesome, even the gay-bashing in Delirious is kind of funny. I mean, come on, his impression of Mr. T and Ralph Kramden getting fucked in the ass is awesome.
Following the release of the massively successful Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie had gotten to the point where he could literally do anything he wanted. If he wanted to do a feature-length adaptation of the Saturday Night Live skit where he played little orphan Annie as James Brown, he would have a green light faster than you could say HAAAIIIIGGHH (a transcription of Eddie's James Brown impersonation). But he found himself in a quandary. While his astronomical success was based almost entirely on one aspect of his comedic persona—the preternaturally verbally nimble gritty streetwise tough guy—at heart, Eddie was kind of a fuckin' dork, as he freely confesses in Delirious (he does about five minutes about Star Trek, for God's sake). Not only that, but one never wants to repeat oneself. Eddie used his newfound clout, naturally, to do exactly what he wanted to do.
Apparently, what he wanted to do was make an album with Rick James, the aptly named How Could It Be. Now, anyone who watched Saturday Night Live or Delirious knew Eddie could sing. His imitations of Michael Jackson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and even Elvis were kind of fucking perfect. One's reaction to the aforementioned is, in equal measure, laughter and awe. He was that good. At being other people. As “himself,” Eddie's voice was thin, plaintive, high, and frankly a little weak. His songs, in particular the (infamous) lead single (caution: watch at your own risk)
were humorless, bizarre for a comedian, even one less ludicrously talented than Eddie. The album did okay, because he was such a huge star, but the cause of movie stars putting out albums was set back years.
His next (and first cinematic) misstep was 1986's The Golden Child. When it came out, I thought it was the bee's knees, but then again, I was 7; Eddie Murphy, Voltron, and Bernard King's knee where the only things in the universe I gave a flying fuck about. Upon further reflection, The Golden Child sucks. It made a lot of money, but Eddie had a fair amount of say in the script process, and a very large number of the most retarded cinematic moments of the 80s (a decade known for its bounteous retardation) still found their way in.
Then Eddie cashed in on Beverly Hills Cop with a lazy, mean-spirited sequel that borrowed some bits wholesale from the original, ignored character continuity, and basically served no other constructive purpose than being Chris Rock's movie debut, as a valet parker at the Playboy Mansion who busts Eddie's balls for pulling up in a cement truck (which, admittedly, was a funny bit, but still). That also leads to another very important point that shouldn't be ignored: though Eddie's movies may have been showing an alarming tendency to suck, he gave scores of black actors and comedians their start. The fact that his movies did suck (in an often intellectually lazy fashion) led Eddie to be criticized by Spike Lee and others for negative portrayals of black people; there may have been more work for black actors, but that work unfortunately came largely in the form of motormouthed wiseasses (if they were lucky).
Later the same year as Beverly Hills Cop II, Eddie released Raw, a filmed stand-up concert at the fabled Felt Forum (now, after renovation, The Theater at Madison Square Garden). Although parts are piss-yourself-funny—Eddie's impression of Bill Cosby criticizing Eddie for cursing too much, followed by Richard Pryor's reaction (and oh my God is Eddie's Richard good): “Next time motherfucker calls, tell him I said suck my dick”; his bit about foreigners only understanding the cursing in his act, leading to his status to them as “Mr. Fuck You Man”; and last but certainly not least, his impression of Italian guys who see the Rocky movies and think they're real—an awful lot of Raw leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Eddie's ego is clearly, by this point, the size of a galaxy, and a solid hour of the movie is given over to stale, boilerplate, battle-of-the-sexes stand-up, albeit deftly executed and with creative profanity. Still, there's an urgency to Delirious that there isn't in Raw, which is why Delirious is better.
Coming to America is a huge turning point in Eddie's career. It's really fucking funny, and a well-made movie to boot (John Landis was back in the director's chair; though he was by this point in his career doing all kinds of over-the-top weird shit in his movies, the movies themselves were still good). Eddie and protege Arsenio Hall (back when he still had a last name, before his TV show) play about five characters each, including Eddie's jaw-dropping turn as an old Jewish guy (the old SNL sketch where Eddie went undercover as a white person to see what happened when no black people were around—the cocktail parties on city buses, the free newspapers, the automatic granting of large loans at banks with no collateral or ID or any of that shit, all the things we white people do on a daily basis—was a mere shadow of this mastery; I still don't fucking believe that's really Eddie he's so good). Bottom line, Coming to America is an all-time classic, one of the funniest movies ever, rewatchable, quotable as the day is long.
Unfortunately, it would be Eddie's last classic. With even more clout than he had when he became untouchable and immortal, Eddie decided to direct. And write. And produce. And star. Harlem Nights, much as I watch it whenever it comes on cable, is the product of a massive, massive ego whose dick had simply become too big for anyone to tell him no. It's got a terrific premise: a 1930s gangster movie where Richard Pryor and Eddie go up against a bunch of evil white guys. How the fuck, you ask, do you fuck that up? Let me count the ways: lazy production design, a script whose primary concerns are making Eddie look cool and giving everyone plenty of “fuck”s to say, literally every woman in the movie being a whore (and Eddie punches Della Reese in the face and shoots her in the foot, which, I'm sorry, just ain't fuckin funny, dude). Sure, a lot of stuff in it is pretty cool. I mean, come on, Eddie and Richard Pryor. Redd Foxx (“I ain't gonna be too many more motherfuckers, you hear?”). Michael Lerner makes a reeeeeeal good evil white guy (even though Eddie has him playing a goy for some bizarre reason) and the fact that Eddie and company totally get away with it in the end is satisfying. But man, with a real director, a script doctor, and someone who actually did some research to build the sets, this could have been so much better.
The 90s are where Eddie loses me completely. The 48 Hrs sequel makes Beverly Hills Cop II look like Citizen Kane. Boomerang sucks. The Distinguished Gentleman sucks. Beverly Hills Cop III was sacrilege. The Nutty Professor was okay, with Eddie doing his Peter Sellers thing again and playing every character in the movie, but there isn't anything to it, and you honestly don't have to remake Jerry Lewis movies. Once was enough.
Metro, Eddie's attempt to get back to action-comedy, is shit. Absolute shit. Metro is when I stopped going to Eddie movies, or even giving enough of a fuck to watch them on cable, because however long it had been since the critics left him behind, his pictures still made enough money that he didn't have to do movies this terrible. He was doing movies this terrible either because he wanted to, didn't know any better, or had lost his ability to distinguish between good and bad. It wasn't until Metro that it really hit me how long it had been since Eddie had done anything legitimately good. Almost ten years.
And then the family films started. The Dr. Doolittle remake was inoffensive, but really, praise that faint damns you to a pretty deep circle of hell. Life was almost good. But Mulan, the Shrek quadrilogy, the Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle sequels, Daddy Day Care, Meet Dave, Pluto Nash . . . fucking Norbit? What the fuck, man? Seriously, Eddie. What the fuck. It's not drugs. It's probably not closeted homosexuality (the “methinks the lady doth protest too much” chatter following the “faggots aren't allowed to look at my ass” business in Delirious got a hell of a supporting argument when Eddie got busted with that tranny hooker). To the best of our knowledge he isn't a Scientologist. We may never know.
The thing that makes that string of shit worse is that two legitimately terrific performances were interspersed: the not-great-but-still-really-entertaining Bowfinger, where Eddie is tremendous in the dual role of the batshit insane action star under cult leader Terence Stamp's sway (this is why I think Eddie's not a Scientologist, Steve Martin trolls them way the fuck too hard in this) and the action star's NERD brother. I mean fuck's sake the brother is a NERD. Eddie's great in Bowfinger, which just makes it all hurt so much worse.
The other is Dreamgirls. I personally—don't read this unless you're sitting down—really liked Dreamgirls; I liked the songs, liked the story, even thought Jamie Foxx and Beyonce were really good, even though Jennifer Hudson and Eddie got all the press. Eddie is so good in Dreamgirls, and his singing is so good, that it really makes me depressed sometimes. WHY THE FUCK CAN'T YOU ALWAYS BE THIS GOOD? WHY? WHHHHHHYYYYYYYYY????? KHHAAANNNNN!!!!!! For all the talk about Eddie getting robbed at the Oscars that year, I really think that the reason they gave it to Alan Arkin was because Eddie was doing Norbit next. I honestly really do think that's the actual reason—Oscar voters read the trades, said to themselves, “What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” and angrily checked off anyone other than Eddie on their ballot; sure, it's not fair and it has nothing to do with the performance, and in theory people would compartmentalize, but reality, as established in the beginning, frequently nukes you in the nuts.
I've long since given up on the possibility of a legit, consistent Eddie comeback. This really makes me sad. His appearance on Inside the Actors' Studio made me sigh, because he came off as such a likeable, shy guy, a lot more humble than he used to appear as a young man . . . but it made me wonder if that humility wasn't actually what was holding him back. Like, if he was more of an asshole, and believed that he walked on water and was an artistic genius like a real movie star, his ambition would lead him to reach for the stars more often.
Then again, an important point to consider at this point is: is Eddie himself happy? From what limited evidence I have at my disposal (very limited, considering how press-shy he's always been) he seems so. I think that if he cared at all about being critically acclaimed or being A Serious Actor (another impediment to his Oscar chances in 2006, not giving a shit about such things) he would have long since done something to establish himself as such. So, clearly, he's doing what he wants to do. And the fact that I miss the Eddie of 25 years ago is not his problem at all. Having creative control is a means to one's own happiness, not that of the audience. And so I find myself having to stick with the four good movies Eddie's made as a leading man (Bowfinger and Dreamgirls both being supporting roles) and surrender my desire for a new my-kind-of-Eddie movie. Perhaps surrendering that desire is what it'll take to get another one (shit, it worked for Bowfinger and Dreamgirls).
Perhaps I should just let one of my favorite movie stars be happy. In theory, that's what I'd do if I was a fully rational being. But we know all about theory by this point.