Early on, in “Eddie Murphy Raw” (citywide), a surprisingly poor concert film of Murphy’s stand-up act, he does a double imitation of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor--casting them in a private hagiography as his good and ba-a-a-a-d comedy daddies. Cosby supposedly calls him up and complains bitterly about Murphy’s foul language. Perturbed, Murphy calls Pryor (“Yo, Richard!”) and is told to tell Cosby, saltily, to butt out.
It’s an interesting bit, though it isn’t very funny. There’s a symbolic angle: Cosby and Pryor are the godheads of black stand-up comedy, and Murphy invokes them as if in a struggle for his soul--which Pryor wins. Yet the dice are loaded. Murphy can do a great Cosby imitation, but his mimicry here is choked with malice. Cosby comes across as a querulous meddler, his voice a near-senile venomous croak. And when Murphy gets Pryor consent for his profanity, it’s something of a cheat.
Murphy imitates Pryor now as Pryor once imitated Cosby--but it’s just a four-letter husk. Swearing and swaggering, he misses the soul of Pryor’s comedy: uncertainty, panic and pain covered up by nervous highs and transparent bravado. When Pryor talks like a would-be pimp, it’s funny because he isn’t one: his eyes bulge with Angst and vulnerability.
And Murphy lacks vulnerability. His comedy is based on dazzling verbal ingenuity; excessive street jive makes him comes across as a bully. Murphy’s dressed here in a blue and black leather outfit that make him look like Disco Harry--an image reeking with machismo . Yet the machismo isn’t funny, until he twists it around to mock Italian-Americans hung up on “Rocky.”
This material isn’t just raw, it’s scraped to the bone. Murphy has great gifts and comic technique, a genius for mimicry. Here they seem wasted; he’s like a musician with fabulous technique playing “Chopsticks.” He bombards us with what may be a Guinness record for non-stop, pointless scatology--plus offensively adolescent street “wisdom” on women, swishy gay routines and anecdotes about a dumb-sounding disco brawl. And also, endlessly, the common Anglo-Saxon slang words for feces, sexual intercourse and assorted deviant acts. It’s as if he’s in a speed-swearing contest with Richard Belzer.
One plus: Murphy has hired two talented young black film makers--director Robert Townsend (“Hollywood Shuffle”) and Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee’s regular cameraman--to shoot “Raw.” A minus: Townsend’s talents apparently aren’t for concert films. The movie has so little visual electricity, it almost drones. Ceaselessly, we see Murphy, in his blue leather, prowling back and forth in front of a murky red curtain--in unvaried, banal, head-on medium shots.
The two best bits in “Raw” avoid macho . They’re both recollections of Murphy’s boyhood, one an imitation of himself imitating Pryor. Later on, he tells a story--not funny, but goofy and sweet--about watching his mother make hamburgers with green peppers and Wonder Bread.
It’s a rare human moment in the film, and it reminds us that all of Pryor’s greatest routines came from humanity, the ability to mock yourself as well as the world. Most of the jokes in “Eddie Murphy Raw” (MPAA-rated R, for language) are the kind you regale buddies with to show off. Anyone as good as Eddie Murphy should have outgrown that years ago.
‘EDDIE MURPHY RAW’ A Paramount Pictures presentation of an Eddie Murphy production. Producers Robert D. Wachs, Keenen Ivory Wayans. Director Robert Townsend. Script Eddie Murphy, Wayans. Camera Ernest Dickerson. Editor Lisa Day. With Eddie Murphy.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).