Acting on Impulse

Murphy's Law

by Patrick Taggart

It wasn't so many years ago that the debut of an Eddie Murphy movie was an Event, much as a movie starring Brad Pitt or Demi Moore is now. I'm sure you remember Eddie Murphy; he's the lead actor in Vampire in Brooklyn, the Wes Craven horror comedy that arrived with virtually no fanfare to theatres three weeks ago.

What a difference a decade makes.

Back in the early 1980s, when Murphy became the hottest property on Saturday Night Live since Bill Murray, Murphy's films were as giddily anticipated by his many fans as a birthday party is for a five-year-old.

For good reason, too. His debut feature, 48HRS. (1982), was and remains one of the finest of the buddy-cop films that flourished in the 1980s. Much of the credit goes to director Walter Hill, then at the top of his game, who succeeded where so many of these films fail in seamlessly fusing hilarious comic turns with genuinely gut-tightening suspense.

But it was Murphy who won the day. From his opening scene, where we see him mouthing the words to "Roxanne" as the tune blasts his brain from a headset, he seemed born to the medium -- a camera-friendly presence if ever there was one. 48HRS. turned on Murphy's scenes, each funnier than the last, culminating in the famous redneck bar scene, where he announces to the assemblage that he is their "worst nightmare."

No need to go into detail in Murphy's parade of hits. Let it suffice to say that in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1985), Cop II (1987) and Coming to America (1988) Murphy always managed to appear fresh without having to re-invent himself.

Of course, he made some poor choices along the way: Best Defense (1984), The Golden Child (1986), and just about everything since Coming to America: Harlem Nights, Another 48 HRS, Boomerang, The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III and the recent Vampire in Brooklyn. Eddie Murphy Raw (1987), the actor's stand-up film, was an attempt to duplicate the success of Richard Pryor's concert films but only proved that this formidable screen talent does in fact have limitations.

Murphy is now well into an emphatic career slump. It's small consolation that it is a totally avoidable one.

Nobody questions the actor's undiminished talent or enthusiasm. In Coming to America, Murphy played an African prince traveling incognito in hopes of finding a bride who would know nothing of his wealth or rank. He also played three other characters, habitués of an old-fashioned barbershop. One of them is an elderly Jewish man, and Murphy played the role to such perfection that few of us had any idea it was him until the closing credits. He encores this package in Vampire, playing not just the title character but an unscrupulous preacher and a small-time Italian-American hoodlum.

But forget about disguises and accents, which are often relatively easy chores. There's still the matter of Murphy's perfect timing and his utter ease and comfort before the camera. In all his films, good and bad, there's not a single scene I can recall in which he looks stiff or affected. No secret here: he's a natural.

What fuels the slump is the motivation behind that string of poor choices.

Picking projects that turn out to be awful films is an innocent and common mistake. But Murphy's bad choices seem to be a direct result of a continual need to prop himself up as a Star. In virtually all of his films after 48HRS., Murphy has positioned himself to be a screen-consuming supernova, a smiling, wisecracking charmer whose antics and tactics always win in the end.

Even with a good actor at the helm, this gets boring. Audiences are now showing signs of that boredom. How much better off would Murphy be, I wonder, if several years ago he had attempted straight dramatic roles, or, heaven forbid, a supporting role? (Michael J. Fox, hardly a box-office burnout, supports Michael Douglas in The American President.)

Bill Murray may not have been as hot as he was in the time of Stripes and Ghostbusters, but he keeps himself alive and wonderful by departing from those kinds of roles for projects like Little Shop of Horrors, Mad Dog and Glory, and Ed Wood.

The best thing Murphy could do to revive his slumping career is to quit trying to be a movie star and concentrate on fulfilling his considerable promise as an actor.

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Okay, Cindy Crawford, your 15 minutes are up.

In spite of the horrendous reviews, I felt compelled to see Fair Game on its first day of release. And no, not because it provides an opportunity to observe this long-limbed beauty in a context not involving fashion photography. It was the hope of finding an underrated B-thriller that drove me to the theatre.

What drove me back out was Crawford. Only rarely does someone with such a profound and stunning lack of talent land a lead role in a major studio film. Crawford is wooden and unexpressive, her speech as flat as the Llano Estacado. Next to her, Lauren Hutton is Dame Edith Evans.

Those who want to ogle won't be disappointed. The filmmakers have dressed Crawford for success -- plenty of short skirts and T-shirts. But the sight of nipples straining against a wet tank top comes at a high price. Quite apart from Crawford's inadequacy, Fair Game is bad in most of the ways in which modern thrillers can be bad: in a couple of words, noisy and nonsensical. Be warned.

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