Every so often a comedy comes along that’s so flat, pointless and grimly unfunny that you have to ask yourself: What in the world happened to Eddie Murphy’s career?
First there was Walter Hill’s “48 HRS.,” still one of the best, most diverting and only buddy movies to prove that muscular action and savvy racial politics aren’t mutually exclusive; two years later there was “Beverly Hills Cop,” dated but always worth catching during one of its ubiquitous television airings. As a fast-talking criminal in the first and an equally fast-talking cop in the second, Murphy established an ability to nimbly hold the screen and steal scenes, but he also, perhaps unwittingly, set the template for the career that would follow. In one film Murphy would play prickly, winning us over with the dexterity of his timing and delivery; in the next film he would play nice, winning us over (sometimes) with a performance that often registered more as ingratiating than dazzling.
In the early years, Murphy kept his comedy teeth sharpened with a couple of entertaining, sporadically very funny and raunchy stand-up films, “Eddie Murphy’s Delirious” and “Eddie Murphy’s Raw.” Back then it seemed that the Brooklyn native was committed to keeping it real, even in a shiny red leather ensemble.
The danger signal that everything might not be right with Murphy’s movie career started to flash ominously around “The Golden Child,” initiating a fallow period. Still, although subsequent features like “Coming to America” afforded seriously slim returns, this particular trifle at least allowed Murphy to inhabit different characters in close proximity, a talent he would put to mercurial use in the remake of “The Nutty Professor.”
In the last decade, though, the alarms have been sounding like Klaxon horns. Witness the star’s latest vehicle, “Daddy Day Care.” Directed with flaccid inattention by Steve Carr and written by Geoff Rodkey, the setup finds Murphy as a family man who gets his derriere kicked first by his boss (he’s canned), then by a congregation of ruthless scene-stealers (he opens a day-care center).
The kid who plays Murphy’s son is terminally adorable, if distracted, and Regina King makes as pleasantly bland a spouse as Donna Reed. The less said about Anjelica Huston, doing her witchy-woman thing, the better, although Jeff Garlin and Steve Zahn, as Murphy’s cohorts, are welcome relief. There is one funny joke: When a beautiful day-care client can’t get her screaming 4-year-old to let go, she tells Garlin, “I just stopped breast-feeding him.” Without dropping a beat, Garlin replies, “I’d freak out too.”
That’s all there is to say about the movie; I laughed a couple of times, but mostly I was bored out of my mind and not a little depressed. Being an admirer of Murphy demands dedication and tenacity -- and a strong neck: You can get whiplash trying to keep up with his highs and lows.
It’s hard to think of another contemporary comic actor whose fortunes have swung as wildly and, at times, calamitously, from those first hits to “Beverly Hills Cop III,” from the delightful (and underrated) “Bowfinger” to “The (Mis)Adventures of Pluto Nash.” Yet for the Murphy faithful, even warmed-over nonsense offers a little Murphy something, including “Dr. Dolittle 2" and “Showtime,” a two-hander with Robert DeNiro that was widely reviled but not all that much worse than the effluvium that comes rushing down the studio pike.
In December, Variety commissar Peter Bart wrote Murphy a “Dear Eddie” letter in which he suggested that, in light of the star’s recent bombs, he cut his asking price. “Show the community that at least one star is willing to step forward,” encouraged Bart, “and proclaim that actor salaries are like the stock market -- they can go down as well as up.”
Bart’s appeal to Murphy’s fiscal responsibility probably warmed the heart cockles of the executives who had green-lighted these flops; no one suggested that they cut their own salaries for having bad taste and judgment. The thing is, though, unlike a pitcher whose multimillion-dollar arm is on the permanent fritz, Murphy remains on top of his comedy game -- the guy is as funny as ever, as his turn in the upcoming “Shrek” sequel will doubtless prove.
It’s unlikely that Murphy believes in twaddle like “Pluto Nash” or in its resurrectional box office powers, and, of course, it would be better if he took a pass on drivel. Given the comedy terrain, however, it’s possible that if Murphy became more discriminating, he would also work far less frequently. Our seemingly limitless appetite for the vulgar neo-slapstick of the Farrelly brothers doesn’t leave much room for comics like Murphy who, unlike Jim Carrey, are funny above the neck, not just below. There’s a reason Steve Martin writes for the New Yorker and Chris Rock directed his last movie. Who else, after all, was going to cast the razor-tongued Rock as a presidential candidate with fiercely progressive politics?
Rock stayed true to his comedic self with “Head of State.” The truth is, however, that as Murphy grew more famous and his material more mainstream, he blunted his comedy. After a certain point, be it the first, second or third $100 million in grosses, the only color that counts in Celebrity-wood is green.
There’s a utopian moment in that sort of colorblindness, but it’s also arguable that something inextricably real and genuine has been lost in the bid to sell Murphy to the widest possible audience. As some of his earlier films prove, his genius isn’t limited to quicksilver timing and wacky voices but includes an almost sui generis facility for at once projecting righteous outrage and sending that outrage up the comedy flagpole, where he lets it flutter and sputter for all to see.
A little angry indignation can tickle the audience; a lot of outrage can scare the bejesus out of it. Where that leaves Murphy is unknown. In “The PJs,” which he co-created and for which he provided some memorable vocalization, Murphy divided critics and provoked the wrath of Spike Lee and at least one advocacy group, which decried its “offensive jokes.”
Leaving aside the question of whether the show was offensive, funny or maybe a bit of both, it’s undeniable that nothing kills comedy faster than the albatross of responsibility. Right now the most consistently funny comedy isn’t on any movie screens but on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where Larry David routinely skewers every sacred cow in America, then throws them on an open flame.
Could a black comic get away with that kind of outrage? I’m not sure. Like David, Murphy is certainly wealthy and established, and can venture that sort of risk. Not because, as Variety editor Bart suggested last year, he should take a pay cut to atone for his bombs and stick to smiling, but because he owes it to himself to test the limits of his craft.
His participation in successes such as “Shrek” is nice enough for the preteen set. But to be blunt, it’s terribly sad that over the last decade Murphy has been celebrated more for giving voice to a sassy cartoon donkey and for a personal indiscretion than for his gifts. His fans are trying to keep the faith, but when it comes to the dispiriting likes of “Daddy Day Care,” even they have their limits.
‘Daddy Day Care’
MPAA rating: PG; some material may not be suitable for children.
Times guidelines: This is really clean.
Eddie Murphy...Charlie Hinton
Regina King...Kim Hinton
Anjelica Huston...Miss Gwyneth Harridan
Revolution Studios presents a Davis Entertainment Production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Steve Carr. Writer Geoff Rodkey. Producers John Davis, Matt Berenson, Wyck Godfrey. Director of photography Steven Poster. Production designer Garreth Stover. Editor Christopher Greenbury. Music David Newman. Music supervision Spring Aspers. Costume designer Ruth Carter. Casting Juel Bestrop, Jeanne McCarthy. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.