By Lisa Schwarzbaum
October 16, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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  • Movie
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God may work in mysterious ways, but Hollywood’s game plan is an open book: (1) Grab a star and milk him; (2) Take a trend and ride it; (3) Find an easy target and blast it; and (4) Lure an audience and bamboozle it. Following this sacred text, Holy Man features (1) Eddie Murphy as (2) a self-styled spiritual pilgrim who drifts into the lives (3) of a couple of hustling home-shopping-network execs and heals their souls, (4) imparting viewers with a Life Lesson. Yet what remains infinitely unknowable about this unholy dud is how all attempts at comedy and spiritual uplift got shot to hell.

Bald-headed Murphy, in a long white dashiki and matching palazzo pants, plays the otherworldly title character, who calls himself G. And G — as in Gangsta? As in God? As in Geeeee-sus? — is taking time to sniff the grass, literally, near a Miami highway, when he is almost run over by Ricky (Jeff Goldblum) and Kate (Kelly Preston). A car tire has sprung a leak, and so, in a way, have their lives: Lonely, abrasive Ricky, a top exec at the Good Buy Shopping Network, will get canned if sales don’t improve; lonely, humorless Kate is a media analyst looking to boost the bottom line.

Part angel, part guru, part guy with no change of clothes, G insinuates himself into their drama, visits them at work, and calms their accelerated heartbeats with his blank, moist eyes and fixed grin. Wandering through the giant GBSN studio, he drifts from product pitcher to product pitcher, interrupting on-camera spiels with little sermons along the lines of, ”Do you really need this crap?” Viewers are uplifted — and they buy more. Pretty soon, G’s a hot commodity. (Robert Loggia, as GBSN’s venal owner, wants to own G, too.) The Holy Roller is Forrest Gump and Network‘s Howard Beale rolled into one. His basic stump speech: ”Let go. Give in. And take the journey.” (Another nugget: ”You’re never more whole than when you love another person.”) The converted spread the word on T-shirts.

Gump, though, had an excuse: His slogans were the work of a pure and simple mind, adopted by a country starving for purity and simplicity. What this cat is selling is anyone’s guess. Director Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland’s Opus) and screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) offer no clues, no challenges, nothing to provoke the smallest bubble of curiosity in an audience that waits 40 minutes only to realize Oh, I get it, this isn’t going to be Eddie Murphy Funny!

What could have been inventively scathing, or Nathanael West Profound, is as toothless as a Season’s Greetings card. Why, G is so nondenominationally inoffensive that religious representatives vie to take credit for his ”theology”: A rabbi detects Talmudic influence, an imam claims G as a friend of Muslims, and a Christian scholar approves of the guru’s apparent familiarity with the New Testament. Remarkably, none of these gentlemen suggests that there may be more to their traditions than a wifty appreciation of greenery, or that the clown citing scripture rejected from Chicken Soup for the Soul actually shortchanges religious devotion.

Meanwhile, the send-up of consumerism is coarse without rubbing deep, especially since riffing on the braying hucksterism that powers home-shopping programs is so easy. Kitsch-value guest stars playing themselves as GBSN celebrity hawkers include Soupy Sales, Betty White, Willard Scott, Morgan Fairchild, and Florence Henderson, and each trots out to sell rudely named products — ”Clam” perfume, ”Insta-Tuck” battery-operated face-lifters, ”Suck ‘n Seal” zipper-lock bags. (Didn’t SNL trademark this bit years ago with the Bass-O-Matic? And didn’t Lucy get there first with Vitameatavegamin?) Ah, but TV-generation celebs getting dirty is such a devalued thrill: White has an orgasm holding a perfume bottle; Henderson gets to say ”Suck it!” Any of these old hams seriously pushing their own products is far funnier.

It’s a miracle, really: Holy Man diminishes the strengths of everyone and everything it has going for it. Goldblum’s manically funny aggression? Sedated. Preston’s interestingly hard-edged sexuality? Blunted. When G gets Ricky and Kate to fall in love and a studio cameraman broadcasts the couple in a clinch, clusters of home viewers break into applause, Truman Show-style. We in the theater pews are saying a prayer of thanks that the spiritual circus has moved on. D

Holy Man
Starring Eddie Murphy, Jeff Goldblum
Touchstone
Rated PG
114 Minutes

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  • Movie
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  • PG
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