If you grew up watching Eddie Murphy chomping on a cigar as Gumby or getting gunned down in a hail of bullets as Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live, or better yet, dropping F-bombs as the cool-cat star of 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that there’s a whole generation out there that has no clue just how funny and dirty he once was.When they think of Eddie Murphy — if they even think of him at all — it’s as the donkey from the kiddie franchise Shrek, or the once-dangerous comedian desperately searching for laughs in fart gags and fat suits in The Klumps.
The fact is, it’s been over a decade since Murphy made a decent movie — 1999’s Bowfinger — and way, way longer since he made a great one. But here’s the good news: it looks like Eddie Murphy is finally back. His latest comedy, Tower Heist, is doing solidly at the box office this weekend. And I’d bet that a good chunk of those ticket buyers are folks like me who had their fingers crossed that this would be The One — the movie where we finally get a glimpse of that old, dirty Eddie Murphy magic again.
How did we get here?
When Murphy first showed up on SNL in 1980, he was a raw, 19-year-old Brooklyn kid with a thousand-watt smile. He was also the closest thing the show had to a high-voltage live wire. Every time he showed up in a sketch, you had no idea what would happen because anything could happen. At a time when Lorne Michaels’ late-night show could have gone off the cliff after losing its original cast or simply drifted into sleepy irrelevance, Murphy single-handedly put the paddles on its chest and zapped it back to life. Not to sound dramatic, but there probably wouldn’t be an SNL today, if Murphy hadn’t goosed it into its second Golden Age.
As a star was being born on SNL, Hollywood was watching along with the rest of the country, fishing around for its checkbook. It didn’t take long for Murphy to be lured out west to see if his lightning-quick chops would work on the big screen. Murphy made the brilliant buddy-flick 48 Hrs. and class-conscious comedy Trading Places back-to-back in 1982 and 1983. They were both enormous hits. In between, Murphy donned a red leather suit and served up the proudly profane stand-up concert movie Delirious. Here was a guy who could do it all. Unlike Murphy’s role model, Richard Pryor, he was determined not to tone his comedy down for the movies. And in the few cases he did, he didn’t look as uncomfortable about it as Pryor always did (then again, it’s hard to look comfortable when you’ve got enough cocaine to kill a moose in your system). Murphy had become a pop culture phenomenon — and not insignificantly, also the first black movie star wholeheartedly embraced by white America. Even when he made bad choices — like 1984’s dreadful Best Defense — he was smart enough to follow it up with a sure-fire formula hit like Beverly Hills Cop (even if that meant turning down costarring with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters to do it. You’re welcome, Ernie Hudson!)
As Murphy’s paychecks got bigger and bigger, he seemed to grow more remote and cold. His jokes lost some of their edge, as if they had been market-tested by his personal Grizz and Dot Com yes-men. And judging by his brief foray into dance music (“Party All the Time”), there was no one around to say, No. Murphy was still making some good movies (1988’s Coming to America is still a classic), but he was also ladling out more and more toothless mush (The Golden Child, Harlem Nights, The Distinguished Gentleman…the list, sadly, goes on). Like all stars who start cashing too many checks with too many zeroes too quickly, he seemed to lose his compass somewhere in the backseat of his stretch limo. These films weren’t just painful to watch, they felt a bit like a betrayal. This is where the decade-long slide begins.
When Murphy finally returned with The Nutty Professor in 1996, he was clearly a humbled version of his former self. It was as if, deep down, he knew he’d alienated his adult fans, so he had to cultivate a new generation of younger ones. People like to dogpile on Murphy’s fat suits-and-fart jokes films (including the original Nutty Prof himself, Jerry Lewis), but I have a soft spot for them. Not because they’re great (they’re not), but because I was happy just to see Murphy tip toe his way back into the popular culture in something funnier than A Vampire in Brooklyn. Eddie Murphy might have been less delirious and raw, but he was back on top again.
Since then, Murphy’s made movies that are good (Bowfinger), bad (Metro) and ugly (The Adventures of Pluto Nash). But every time America’s about to write him off, he pulls a rabbit like Dreamgirls out of his hat. He’s the anti-Buckwheat, his career can’t be killed. That’s why I’m pleasantly surprised by the reception to Tower Heist. I don’t want to oversell the movie. I’s no Trading Places, despite its down-with-the-rich theme. But it’s as close to “a moment” as Eddie Murphy’s had in a long time. And for those of us old enough to remember the charismatic, cutting-edge comedian he once was, that’s a cause for celebration.