(On TV, September 2017) There’s an arc to Eddie Murphy’s career, which started in edgy adult comedy in the early eighties and now seems to be mired in cheap comedy for kids. In that arc, Coming to America seems to be in the sweet spot: accessible to the entire family, but still generally clever and controlled. You can see the seeds of latter bad-Murphy (such as playing two separate characters, or the accents, or the straightforward plotting) but everything seems under control most of the time. It helps that the supporting cast (Arsenio Hall, but also James Earl Jones) is on their game, and that the film doesn’t lose sight of its main goal. It adds up to a competent comedy, and one that hasn’t aged all that much since its release. The love story is standard, but the fish-out-of-water details of two royalty members choosing to look for love in lower-class Queens are amusing. Samuel L. Jackson makes an early appearance as a would-be robber.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) If ever you find yourself watching Another 48 Hrs and wondering where much of the plot went, be comforted by the fact that the first cut of the film ran nearly an hour longer, and got mercilessly over-edited in the few weeks before its wide release. In other words, much of the story got left on the cutting room floor, leaving only the set-pieces in place. Which isn’t nearly as insane as it sounds: As with a number of buddy-cop movies spawned by its predecessor, Another 48 Hrs is unremarkable for plot (except when it’s missing) and noteworthy for the banter between its characters and the quality of its action sequences. Here Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte are back in more or less the same shape as in the first film (egregiously so in the case of Murphy’s character, as the film goes out of its way to ensure that he has remained in jail in the interval rather than have him evolve a bit), and director Walter Hill ensures that the film goes on its merry humdrum way. Another 48 Hrs does have a few strong moments: the bus-flipping sequence is cool; there is another intimidate-the-bar sequence to ape the first movie, and the motorcycle-crashing-through-the-adult-cinema-screen sequence reminded me that I did see Another 48 Hrs at the drive-in back in 1990, even though I remembered nearly nothing else about the movie itself. It’s a noticeable step down from the already average original, but at least there’s Nolte and Murphy bickering to make up for the dull shootouts, incoherent story and generic direction. That’s what sequels gave you back in 1990.
(On DVD, September 2017) Ah, the eighties … peak era for police brutality and casual racism being presented as comedy engines. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy team up in 48 Hrs. for a gritty crime comedy that prefigures much of the buddy-cop films to follow. The script is unrepentant about its use of racist profanity and brutal violence—it’s meant to be funny, but modern audiences may disagree. This being said, the film does works relatively well at what it tries to be, however distasteful this may be. Murphy is responsible for most of the laughs, most notably in a sequence in which he intimidates an entire redneck bar. Anette O’Toole has a far-too-brief turn as a peripheral girlfriend that disappears from the action without much fanfare. Director Walter Hill keeps things hopping steadily, which helps in watching the film today. While interesting as a prototype of latter action movies, 48 Hrs. has a limited appeal from today’s perspective—it’s been imitated, remixed and redone so often that Murphy aside, it’s difficult to see much of it as being distinct today.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) There is a big risky gamble at the heart of Life—the idea that you’d be able to create comedy out of a dramatic, even tragic premise: two innocent young men condemned for life in prison. Featuring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, no less. How do these clashes of sensibility would play out? As it turns out, much of Life is indeed dragged in all directions. At the macro-level, it’s a sad story, but at the micro-level, it’s Murphy and Lawrence insulting themselves with R-rated profanity-laden dialogue. It’s dumb and sad and funny and silly and weighty in random measures. The production values are fine, and there are two or three sequences that float above the rest—the dream nightclub sequence is particularly well-handled, for instance. During much of its duration, Life feels unfocused, but it does attaint some of its sought-after poignancy late in its running time, as the impact of time becomes more visible on the characters. It’s at that point when we remember what life in prison can mean, and the opportunities stolen from the characters. Even Lawrence isn’t annoying during that segment, making this the high point of his acting career so far. It’s a brief, but affecting moment … and then the film kind of squanders it by going through the motions of resolving long-held conflicts, allowing the characters one last devious plan and ending on an improbable happy ending. Even in concluding, Life does try to have it several ways at once, and feels a bit weaker for attempting it. While the film is worth a look, it may be more for studying its flaws that appreciating its qualities.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) It’s movies like The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps that have me wondering whether I’m an unsuspecting alien having trouble understanding humanity. The story of the film has something to do about a scientist inventing a rejuvenating elixir, but never mind the plot: the point of the film is in showing Eddie Murphy plays half a dozen different roles in the same film, even often in the same frame. It doesn’t get more grotesque than seeing Murphy as an elderly woman sexually assaulting Murphy as himself. Oh, wait, it does get more grotesque when a character gets violated by an enlarged sex-crazed hamster. Bestiality and sodomy at once in a kid’s movie—just another day in Hollywood. I’m not saying that The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps is completely bereft of laughs. One or two jokes succeed, and seeing Janet Jackson struggle in such a terrible film almost earns her a sympathy chuckle. The anarchic plot is just a clothesline on which to hang unfunny sketches, and while Murphy occasionally hits a high note, the rest of the film feels too gross to be likable or even tolerable. Never mind my doubts about whether I’m human: The film sinks so low that I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers behind the movie themselves were aliens with only a shaky understanding of human nature.
(TMN-Go Streaming, September 2016) As far as spy comedies go, I Spy is almost exactly what it claims to be: Mismatched protagonists (Owen Wilson as a borderline-incompetent spy, Eddie Murphy as an arrogant motormouth boxer pressed in covert service), a handful of action sequences, a serviceable plot meant to string along the comic sequences and a somewhat generic East-European setting. It goes through the motion of its buddy comedy/spy movie hybrid plot, features some nice scenery and lets its lead actors do whatever they want in roles closely aligned with their persona. Wilson is fine and almost unremarkable, whereas Murphy does a little better by virtue of a showier role—his ringside introduction is remarkably effective, for instance. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about the plot (which features an invisible super-plane parked in the middle of a city) nor the supporting character. I’m sort of amazed that I managed to miss it during all those years, and that I never realized that it was so close in tone and subject matter to Bad Company, which also came out at more or less the same time. I Spy is by no means a classic, but it’s decently entertaining once you get past the dumb script, and you even get one or two flashes of classic Eddie Murphy.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) In one way, I’ve been waiting more than twenty-five years to watch Trading Places,—spurred by an intriguing comment in High-School economics class that it was a movie that featured a stock-market crash. But watching it today, the one distinguishing characteristic of the film, and the one that ensures that it’s still relevant today, is the charged racial humour, as a street-smart hustler is set up as a patsy for a stock-brokering scheme. Eddie Murphy is very good as the hustler made respectable, with Dan Aykroyd as the naïf who becomes far more world-aware after being disgraced. Jamie Lee Curtis also shows up (sometimes naked) as a prostitute with a solid plan for her future. Trading Places is obviously a product of its time—the technical references are charmingly dated, the portrait of a wintry Chicago is pure period, the World Exchange Towers show up in an eerie cameo, and much of its financial shenanigans aren’t revelatory given a few more economic crises and the rise of the day trader. Still, the class-warfare component of the film remains just as pressing today, and the jokes still work pretty well despite a slightly slower pace and some strange plot loops toward the third quarter of the film. Watching Trading Places has been worth the wait, though—Seeing Murphy in top form is always a delight.
(On TV, October 2013 or thereabouts) As someone who’s had to recently real with daycare selection and taking care of an active toddler, you’d expect my reaction to Daddy Day Care to be a bit more sympathetic than usual. And you’d be right: While I don’t usually have much patience for broad kiddy-friendly comedies where once-proudly-anti-establishment comedians now kowtow to the lowest possible common denominator (Edide Murphy’s career dive has been something, right?), I had a bit of a good time watching this film, even when unable to give it my full attention. The gags aren’t meant to be sophisticated, the bare-bone plot isn’t supposed to be scrutinized and the most interesting thing to say about the film is how effectively the actors mug for the camera. Murphy may be a parody of his old self, but he still gets the laughs, and able supporting players like Steve Zahn do much to help. Adults bored by the movie’s cheap laughs can always appreciate Anjelica Huston’s antagonist (a caricature, but a perfect fit for the actress), alongside Lacey Chabert as her suffering bespectacled assistant. Daddy Day Care‘s best feature is its absolute predictability… particularly in a certain kind of viewing circumstances (ie; playing daddy day care)
(In theaters, November 2011) Brett Ratner has never been accused of being an elitist director, and his latest Tower Heist is populist in more ways than one. A rob-the-rich comic thriller with the luck of being released just as the United States are developing their first wealth-equality protest movement in a long time, Tower Heist is just as mainstream-minded in the way it unfolds. The happy coincidence of showing up alongside various “Occupy” movements may not be an unqualified plus: The antagonist of the piece is sufficiently arrogant, cruel and unrepentant to qualify as a terrible human being without even invoking the populist rhetoric. Nonetheless, this is still a story about working-class ordinary people taking justice against rich people who stole from them –no matter how we may try to treat this as a standalone story, it does find a special resonance in a post-Madoff, post-financial crisis, post-recession American society. Fortunately, the film is entertaining enough on its own merits to avoid depending solely on current events: Ben Stiller is just fine as the savvy leader of the bunch trying to take away millions of dollars that Alan Alda’s super-rich character has stolen from their pension funds. Eddie Murphy is in rare form as an unrepentant criminal asked to use his skills for a slightly-greater goal. Supporting players such as Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe and Téa Leoni all get a few moments to shine. As for the rest of Tower Heist, it’s a slick big-budget heist film: clean cinematography, steady forward rhythm and a suitably hair-raising action climax set against a festive backdrop. Only the coda has the power to annoy in its insistence that the poor stealing from the rich must face the consequences of bucking the system. Still, the movie itself is entertaining enough, and the populist message is matched by its tone. Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary and you should like it.
(On DVD, January 2008) Every year, the Oscars play a dirty trick on completists by nominating the worst sort of tripe for one of the technical categories. Last year it was Click; this year it’s Norbit for best make-up. Well, props to the Academy: The makeup effects that allow Eddie Murphy to play three roles alongside himself are top-notch and withstand way-too-close scrutiny. On the other hand, makeup is the only thing worth noticing about this tedious comedy that multiplies the Murphy Mugging factor. The plot concerns a henpecked man (Murphy), raised by an adoptive father (Murphy), hounded by a massive wife (Murphy) rediscovering his inner strength when a long-lost love (Thandie Newton, to be pitied) moves back into town. There’s little to the predictable plot but a series of fat jokes and slight gags. The characters aren’t caricatures; they’re lobotomized stereotypes that highlight how the film was made for 12-year-old audience. The script is leadened with a series of overused jokes, unfunny concepts and dumb staging that will only make sense if you know nothing about the way the world works. (Hence the ideal 12-year-olds audience). Occasionally, Norbit manages to strike a mildly amusing note or two; otherwise, it’s a dreadful experience without much value.