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Video Reviews: 'The Nutty Professor's

‘The Nutty Professor’s — We compare Eddie Murphy’s recent version with the 1963 Jerry Lewis original

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Video Reviews: ‘The Nutty Professor’s

What’s even rarer than a sequel that improves upon the original? A remake that improves upon the original. Yet that’s what we have with Eddie Murphy’s career-reviving smash, The Nutty Professor, an update of Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor.

In Lewis’ original riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, love-struck dweeb Julius Kelp invents a potion that transforms him into oily lounge lizard Buddy Love. Murphy’s movie changes the name to Sherman Klump, and instead of being simply nerdy, he’s also grotesquely obese. Murphy’s Buddy Love, meanwhile, is a fitness freak. His love interest also changes from a coed (Stella Stevens) to a fellow chemistry teacher (Jada Pinkett), in keeping with ’90s campus sex-harassment politics.

The biggest difference between the two Nuttys — and the reason why Murphy’s is so superior — is that Eddie’s a better actor. As Kelp, Lewis sports a bad haircut and fake buckteeth, but you never forget for a minute that you’re watching Jerry Lewis do shtick. On the other hand, Murphy vanishes into Klump — and not just because he’s wearing full body makeup ingeniously designed by Rick Baker. He brings real believability to this deferential Southern gentleman, and to five other characters he also plays under prosthetics: Sherman’s crotchety dad, sweet-as-pie mom, randy grandma, buff brother, and Richard Simmons-esque exercise guru. It’s a tour de farce worthy of Peter Sellers in his prime. If the Oscars overlook Murphy for a Best Actor nod, it’ll be further evidence of the Academy’s bias against comics — and blacks.

The subtext beneath both movies also provides an illuminating contrast. When Lewis’ box office hit was released, it was believed the dorky Kelp was a (perhaps unintentional) parody of Lewis’ doofus persona, while the cocktail-swilling crooner Love was a send-up of Lewis’ estranged ex-partner, Dean Martin. Lewis denied the charge — and with his mafioso-like malevolence, Lewis’ Love does seem more like Frank Sinatra. Murphy’s Love also has the unmistakable air of self-parody. The Cheshire grin, the manic laugh, the high-testosterone aggressiveness — this is Eddie Murphy circa Beverly Hills Cop II. And Nutty feels like a long-overdue apology for too many bad movies.

Apology accepted. Murphy’s Nutty packs enough belly laughs for three comedies. Watching it on video, you’ll probably catch more jokes than you could have at a multiplex; at the theater in which I saw Nutty, the family dinner scenes were drowned out by the sound of uncontrollable guffawing. And deservedly so: They feature the funniest flatulence since the campfire scene in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

You might wish you were with an audience when watching Lewis’ Nutty, however — they could help tell you when to laugh. Some of the gags seem dated, and there are so many surreal sequences, the film verges on avant-garde. (No wonder the French love it.)

The first Nutty was cowritten and directed by Lewis, which explains its self-indulgent moments. (Lewis breaks into song five times.) Murphy’s soloing, thankfully, is limited to one chorus of Minnie Riperton’s ”Lovin’ You.” Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t in charge — a blessing, as anyone who endured his vanity project Harlem Nights can tell you. Lewis is listed as an executive producer of the remake, but his involvement was reportedly minimal. The real creative forces include director Tom Shadyac and cowriter Steve Oedekerk, the guys who showcased Jim Carrey so brilliantly in the Ace Ventura movies.

Lewis devotee Carrey would have seemed the natural selection to star in a Nutty remake, but Murphy turns out to be an inspired choice. He’s more profane than the on-screen Lewis, yet under those pounds of makeup, there’s a softness Murphy’s never shown before. Even with its coarse humor, the new Nutty exudes a sweet spirit that Lewis — or Carrey — probably never could have achieved. A kinder, gentler Eddie Murphy — now, that’s phat. The Nutty Professor (1996): A- The Nutty Professor (1963): B-