You can tell a performer is in trouble when his legal entanglements are more entertaining than his movies. Such is now the case with Eddie Murphy.
Exhibit A is “Boomerang” (citywide), a film that is more listless than funny and could surely use some of the energy that animated both Art Buchwald and Paramount Pictures in the lawsuit surrounding authorship of Murphy’s 1988 “Coming to America.” Basically a multimillion-dollar vanity project, “Boomerang” is also a misguided whatever-Eddie-wants-Eddie-gets attempt to reposition him in the cinematic firmament.
Only 31 years old, Murphy, if “Boomerang” is any indication, is having himself an identity crisis. Once one of the funniest of men, with $1 billion in worldwide grosses to prove it, he now, like Robin Williams before him, seems to feel that comedy isn’t quite good enough. Instead he wants to be thought of as a romantic leading man, a suave successor to Cary Grant and friends. Not only is that a role that Murphy has no particular flair for, it also leads to a squandering of the considerable talent he does have.
Watching Murphy in “Boomerang” it is almost impossible to remember the sharp, high-spirited exhilaration he brought to comedy in films like “48 HRS.” and “Trading Places.” That edge, despite what has been claimed in interviews, is now invisible, and when Murphy deigns to do funny material here, it is very much with an air of noblesse oblige, the generous potentate scattering crumbs to a grateful peasantry.
The first indication that we’re dealing with a new Eddie Murphy comes in the character he plays. Marcus Graham is no hustler, no scrambler after respectability, he is a polished and successful director of marketing for a successful cosmetics corporation. The man dresses beautifully, has an apartment to match, and is absolutely irresistible to women. He’s the type who sends out long-stemmed roses to half a dozen conquests along with notes reading, “Thinking only of you.”
All of this changes when he meets Jacqueline (Robin Givens), the stunning woman who not only becomes his boss after a corporate merger but is his match in romantic game-playing as well. He tries his best lines on her and she finds them, well, pathetic. “When I seduce you, if I decide to seduce you,” she tells him with devastating aplomb, “don’t worry. You’ll know.”
Buried somewhere in the lackluster script by Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield (the duo officially credited with “Coming to America”) is the very viable idea of a Casanova who gets his comeuppance. The problem is that Murphy, determined to portray a nice guy no matter what, doesn’t have the nerve to play Marcus as the cad he has to be if his chastisement is to mean anything.
Instead, we get the spectacle of a misunderstood nice guy being maltreated by a heartless woman. Instead of being funny, Murphy spends much of “Boomerang” with a hapless, woe-is-me look on his face, a lovelorn little boy lost who must learn humility and humanity before true happiness can be his. Watching the best wisenheimer in the business determinedly turning himself into a sensitive, New Age guy is an exercise in sheer frustration. Surely there must be a better way to utilize the man’s talents.
Directing this transformation from rascal to caring leading man is the overmatched Reginald Hudlin, whose “House Party” (which Hudlin also wrote) had a kind of playfulness that never really gets untracked in the face of Murphy’s powerful star-vehicle machinery. And though Halle Berry is awfully appealing as the girl everyone wants to bring home to mother, Givens has a problem similar to Hudlin’s, never managing to break out and utilize the sassy flair that brought so much life to “A Rage in Harlem.”
Though its plotting is blandness itself, “Boomerang” (rated R for language and sexuality) has a very definite raunchy streak to it, visible not only in its periodically salty dialogue but in the salacious characterizations of supermodel Strange and cosmetics tycoon Lady Eloise, played by two actresses (Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt, respectively) who seem a bit perplexed by what the script demands of them.
The most intriguing aspect of “Boomerang” turns out to be not its story but its racial composition, for this film takes pains to create a reverse world from which white people are invisible except when comic relief is called for. Aside from an insipid waitress, a bumbling racist store clerk and four beefy young slaves (the credits coyly lists them as escorts) who are enthusiastically whipped by Strange as they pull her chariot through New York’s World Financial Center (don’t ask), the only pale American face prominently visible belongs to Capt. James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, eulogized by Marcus as “the coolest white man on the planet.”
On one level, this kind of cinematic affirmative action can be seen as very long overdue, but, unlike the dramatically motivated all-black cast of “A Rage in Harlem,” it feels in its own way as silly and arbitrary as mainstream movies without any people of color on the screen.
While the decisions to show African-Americans as seriously successful and to make sure that the production personnel were fully integrated are exemplary moves, this aspect of “Boomerang” plays not like a social statement but rather as the whim of an emperor, the capricious passion of one who, above all else, must always be obeyed.
Eddie Murphy: Marcus
Robin Givens: Jacqueline
Halle Berry: Angela
David Alan Grier: Gerard
Martin Lawrence: Tyler
Grace Jones: Strange
Geoffrey Holder: Nelson
An Eddie Murphy Production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Reginald Hudlin. Producers Brian Grazer and Warrington Hudlin. Executive producer Mark Lipsky. Screenplay Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield. Cinematographer Woody Omens. Editor Earl Wilson. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Music Marcus Miller. Production design Jane Musky. Art director William Barclay. Set decorator Alan Hicks. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and sexuality).