Summer Supernovas

Eddie, Demi, and Other Lone Stars

By the time Eddie Murphy made Coming to America in 1987, his supernova characteristics were obvious to just about everyone.

No stable celestial being this guy. Murphy's star is of the exploding variety, and it released great energy in films like 48HRS., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop; and then collapsed, black-hole style, in projects like The Golden Child, Eddie Murphy Raw, and Beverly Hills Cop II.

Nobody's perfect, and nobody's permanent. (Okay, maybe Sean Connery.) If Murphy needs comfort in considering the disappointments of his career, he can always look to the likes of John Travolta and Burt Reynolds, two actors whose career graphs resemble the EKGs of Chihuahuas on amphetamines.

But Murphy started something in Coming to America that may well assure his future, at least as a character actor. It's the kind of device that can make viewers forget about the shortcomings of a film that seems to be trying too hard (like the new Nutty Professor) or of a central performance that may be weak or grates on the nerves.

This is, of course, his delight in taking on multiple roles in his films.

In Coming to America, which was a good enough movie not to need rescuing by any person or gimmick, he played an African prince posing as an ordinary immigrant -- a dual role right there. But he also took on three other roles. You remember: those three bickering, bantering guys in the barbershop. As I recall, two black men and an elderly Jewish fellow -- all played by Murphy. Like I say, Coming to America was a surprisingly warm and old-fashioned film, quite a change for the person who had just given us the abrasive Beverly Hills Cop II. But the barbershop scenes were perhaps the funniest in the film.

The Nutty Professor, Eddie's newest movie and his first since a dreadful run of films including Vampire in Brooklyn, Beverly Hills Cop III, Another 48HRS, and Harlem Nights, is a labor of labor, not love. But for all its rather empty noisiness and a wearying performance by the star, it's something of a comeback for Murphy, who clearly needs one.

Again, he has two roles at the center of the film, that of nutty professor Sherman Klump, and his substance-induced alter ego, Buddy Love. On the edges but very much a part of this comic stew are professor Klump's family, which includes but is not limited to his mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather. They are all played riotously by Murphy. The family is gathered together in two big scenes and in both cases what begins as amusingly intimate family repartee descends into bodily function comedy of the kind that makes the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles look like tea time at Tarry House. Credit Murphy that even this sideshow turns out to be somewhat rib-tickling. Seeing him disappear into these many and varied characters (he also plays a Richard Simmons-y exercise guru in other scenes) is an experience not so far removed from that of watching Olivier succeed Heathcliffe with Richard III.

Which is not to say we see Shakespeare in Eddie Murphy's future. What it does say is that for an actor who has movies assembled around his screen persona as a comedic leading man, he is surprisingly willing and clearly able to shoot holes into whatever image his audiences have of him. That's a good thing. With Lone Star, Filmmaker John Sayles gives us at least his second film (the other is Matewan) that achieves such a depth of meaning and common experience, of history and cultural identity, that the descriptive terms "drama" and "historical," while accurate, are woefully inadequate. These films are of mythic consequence.

One of the most satisfying recreations one can have after seeing a film like Lone Star is to ponder the sheer weight and multiplicity of issues, characters, and observations. And, of course, how generally well they are woven into a tight fabric. As a weaver, Sayles (as writer, director, and editor) gave himself his biggest task to date. His tale involves three families, each of a different ethnicity and all united by the same small Texas border town. Much of the story is told in flashback, which, if you are portraying three histories, can only be a formidable challenge to narrative clarity. Along the way, of course, Sayles must make us aware that the situations of the various characters exist in larger contexts. Some of the characters become fairly recognizable mythic archetypes.

Lone Star is not as seamless as Matewan, still Sayles' best movie and among the great American films. To my thinking, the film would have received the exactly the dynamic boost it needed had actors Chris Cooper and Matthew McConaughey (father and son sheriffs) switched roles. But there is so much to admire in a film like this, so much to reflect on afterward, that matters of performance and rhythm assume secondary consideration.

Am I the only one who thinks that Demi Moore has cold, beady eyes?

Maybe it's just a prejudice born of the lengthening list of incredibly lousy films in which this inscrutable actress has appeared. ("Inscrutable" because it's impossible to know who this woman really is: Like Meg Ryan, there's no there there.)

In truth, there are a couple of exceptional performances -- one in About Last Night, opposite Rob Lowe; the other as the naval officer who aids Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. In the latter one could see something approximating warmth and depth.

Striptease comes with one express purpose, to reveal those money-making, often-written-about and, up until now, discreetly photographed breasts.

So there they are, right where they should be, and possessing all the apparent tactile excitement of an unripened honeydew. After seeing them, I thought surely the filmmakers would include a scene of her deflecting bullets with them. n

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