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ON FILM: Murphy's cashing in is a real loss

By Philip Martin

This article was published February 9, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.

— I finally saw Dreamgirls a week or so ago, and I imagine I saw it in the right way - on the big screen, in a nearly full theater surrounded by people who were enthusiastic about the film.

Even so, I was underwhelmed.

Maybe it's because I'm more familiar with Berry Gordy and Florence Ballard than with the characters they obviouslyinspired, but the fictional story was less compelling than the actual history of the Supremes. Similarly, the music felt like faxed-over Motown, a couple of generations less crisp than the original. It was a pleasant enough experience, a well-done movie, but it wouldn't have sniffed my Top 10 list.

I'm surprised anyone considered it a genuine Best Picture candidate.

Still, Eddie Murphy's performance was simply magnificent. And I'm not only talking about his musical chops - "Party All the Time" notwithstanding, Murphy's musicality has never been in question - but his dramatic performance. His portrayal of James "Thunder" Early, a singer who seems a composite of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Ike Turner, is the best thing about Dreamgirls. If I had a vote, he'd be my choice for Best Supporting Actor.

In a way, however, Murphy's heartbreaking turn as the perpetually thwarted Early calls attention to the sometimes vast gulf between his gifts and his aspiration. I see Eddie Murphy as the cinematic counterpart of Rod Stewart - he's a genius who has often wasted his immense talents on unworthy projects. I once wrote that he hadn't worked hard onscreen since 48 Hours.

But I can't say that anymore.

Murphy might not agree with that assessment, though he once declared he stopped caring about his career "$80 million ago." Fair enough, there are plenty of Oscar winners who can't carry Murphy's pimp roll, and if one's measure of success begins and ends at the bank counter then he's more than fulfilled his promise. He's made nearly 50 movies - but after starting off his career with a bang, with 48 Hours and Trading Places, he settled into a pattern that seemed to have him perpetually on the verge of (and in need of) a "comeback" since he followed up the slight Beverly Hills Cop (1984) with the misbegotten The Golden Child(1986).

It wasn't that all his choices are bad - he did good work in Bowfinger (1999), Doctor Dolittle (1998) wasn't horrible, and Life (1999) was pretty good. He was a little irritating as the dragon in Mulan (1998), but he gave fine Donkey in the Shrek series.

But honestly, Murphy showed so much aptitude and potential in his early career it was impossible not to imagine great things for him. He had leading-man looks, world-class charisma and a killer wit. He was athletic and charming, able to handle Cary Grant and John Wayne roles. He was special.

These days there's nothing more ordinary than an Eddie Murphy movie. (I must note here that I wrote this column before I saw Norbit, reviewed on Page 1E.)

As a comic, he's devolved. He once had something of Richard Pryor's gift for social criticism. Now he's just Martin Lawrence. And while Lawrence isn't the worst thing you could be, it's easy for Eddie Murphy to be Martin Lawrence. He could have been great; he has settled for rich. Or at least we thought he had.

I don't expect Murphy to suddenly become the great dramatic actor we always knew he could be, I suspect he'll make plenty more films like Boomerang (1992), Metro (1996), Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001) and I Spy (2002). His gifts are such that he doesn't necessarily have to work hardto be pleasant to watch, and it's a shame that we'll never get to see the movies he could have made.

But he's flat-out great in Dreamgirls, and it's nice to see.

It's also nice to see that Murphy's 1983 HBO concert film, Eddie Murphy Delirious, is finally available on DVD. It was released earlier this week by Entertainment Studios Home Entertainment at a suggested retail price of $19.98.

The film is a video document of Murphy's Grammy-winning album Eddie Murphy, Comedian. Though the material is familiarto most of Murphy's fans (you can see clips from the concert on YouTube, and one fan has even posted a transcript of the concert on the Internet), Murphy kept it from being released on home video in this country for years. People have speculated that this might be because Murphy's blue and raunchy act - which includes a bit about being raped by a gay Mr. T and lots of politically incorrect swipes at women and homosexuals - didn't fit with the more family-friendly image he began to cultivate later in his career. But given that Robert Townshend's concert film, Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987), has been available for years and contains the same kind of material, it seems more likely that the powers that be simply considered Delirious superfluous.

Watching it again for the first time in more than 20 years, I was amazed at how much of the film I'd internalized, from Murphy's red leather jumpsuit to his classic routine about kids and the arrival of the ice cream man. ("Want a lick? Psych!")

While there's no excuse for the nastiness of some of Murphy's hilarious attacks on all comers (though, years later, Murphy did apologize for his jokes), the film is sweeter than the mean-spirited Raw, which caught Murphy at the height of his swagger. There's a glee and an innocence to the 22-year-old comic cutting loose, recklessly slashing up the world with his razor wit. Delirious is aptly titled, and still shocking after all these years.

MovieStyle, Pages 41, 48 on 02/09/2007






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