By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 9, 2012 at 3:46PM
You might not have noticed, but Eddie Murphy has a new movie in theaters today. That's a slightly loaded sentence: "A Thousand Words" was shot four years ago, has been barely screened for critics (those who have seen it have been vicious), and is being put into a mere 1900 theaters, nearly half as much as the week's biggest opening, "John Carter." And all this for a man who was once the brightest star on the planet.
But thanks to a string of bad movies (including bona-fide disasters such as "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Imagine That" and "Meet Dave"), Murphy is no longer a safe bet, and the kind of family fare that has been his bread and butter, and that turned off many of his fans, is now given token releases such as this.
But it hasn't always been this way. Once upon a time, Murphy was a comic hurricane, one of the most exciting new movie stars going, and with "A Thousand Words" being ignored in theaters this weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to have a look at why we fell in love with Murphy in the first place. Below, we've picked out five key Murphy performances from across his career. While we're not holding our breath for an uptick, he has got a promising project on his slate, a biopic of Washington mayor Marion Barry for HBO with Spike Lee, so maybe, just maybe, we'll end up with more parts worthy of his talents in the years to come. Read our selection below, and weigh in yourselves as to your favorite Murphy turn.
"48 Hrs." (1982)
It's amazing to think that "48 Hrs." was not only Eddie Murphy's first starring role, but his first screen appearance full stop. Indeed, the actor was only 21 at the time, and had only broken out on "Saturday Night Live" the previous year. But as potty-mouthed, wisecracking con Reggie in Walter Hill's action-comedy "48 Hrs.," bailed out by Nick Nolte's grizzled, borderline racist cop Jack, he looks like he's been leading movies since the day he was born. He's got a natural swagger, a comic timing unlike anyone else around at the time, and, like Hill's film as a whole, feels genuinely dangerous -- this might have been the first buddy action-comedy, but few since have managed the balance of laugh and genuine stakes as well. The film was originally intended for Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor, but you can't quite imagine that pair having the same friction and the same chemistry, which means, as you'd expect, when the two come to respect each other, it feels genuinely earned. Murphy would go on to refine this sort of performance, but it's pretty sterling as far as debuts go.
"Trading Places" (1983)
Arguably the finest film of Murphy's career to date came a mere six months after his debut, and cemented his place as a fully-fledged movie star. It's not exactly a stretch, though: again, he's playing a hustler, this time Billy Ray Valentine, who's elevated to wealth and privilege by two scheming brokers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) after he crosses paths with their spoiled protege Louis Winthorpe III (a never-better Dan Aykroyd). John Landis' film is one of those rare mainstream comedies that works across the board, with a sweetness, crudeness, and romance all working well, and even a firmly of-the-moment political undercurrent. But the real firecracker is Murphy, who kills it, remaining consistently hilarious throughout. "48 Hrs." made him a star, but "Trading Places" made him a phenomenon.
"Beverly Hills Cop" (1984)
Finishing up the trio of classic comedies that started off his career, Martin Brest's "Beverly Hills Cop" was a crucial moment in the development of Eddie Murphy. Before, he'd been paired with more established stars, Nick Nolte and Dan Aykroyd, but for the first time, he was carrying a movie on his own. And it paid off hugely -- the film was the biggest hit of 1984, out-grossing even "Ghostbusters," and remains the fifth biggest R-rated film of all time. The film has perhaps dated less well than the earlier two, thanks to its none-more-'80s Simpson/Bruckheimer stylings. But it's still a remarkably entertaining ride, far more so than its inferior sequels, and it gave Murphy both his best showcase to date, and let him expand his range -- he sells Axel Foley's desire for vengeance neatly, while also convincing as a bona-fide cop. Is it the best film of his career? No. But as the continuing talk of "Beverly Hills Cop 4" (now seemingly dead) confirms, it's likely the role he'll always be remembered for.
Yes, that's a fifteen year gap. And while there were a few relatively bright spots in that time, they were few and far between. But then came a one-two punch in 1999, the first of which was this comedy-drama, which is likely to be the most controversial pick on our list. From an idea by Murphy himself, and directed by Ted Demme, in many ways it feels like the last pure Eddie Murphy movie: he's not gone back to the R-rated well since, in part likely because the film was coolly received by both critics and audiences at the time. But looking back, it's somewhat undersung. Murphy and Martin Lawrence (in easily his best screen performance) play a pickpocket and a bank teller thrown together by being indebted to a gangster (an unlikely cameo from Rick James). They end up framed for murder and sentenced to life down in Mississippi, and the surprisingly tender picture tracks them across sixty years. The movie is undeniably flawed -- saggily paced, with an indistinctly drawn supporting cast. But it's both funny and affecting, and Murphy gives one of his subtlest and best performances, adjusting bit by bit as the years add up, aided by genuinely superb make-up from Rick Baker, more than justifying their later "Norbit" team-up.
The last decent film of both Murphy and writer/star Steve Martin's careers to date, the Hollywood satire, helmed by Frank Oz, sees Martin play a hapless movie producer, and Murphy in a dual role, both as Kit Ramsey, an action movie star in thrall to a Scientology-like cult, and his nerdy twin Jiff. The film is a little rough around the edges, but is mostly successful (and more accessible than most Hollywood parodies), and Murphy reminds the audience that he can still be funny, even when stripped of the prosthetics of "The Nutty Professor." There's a surprising boldness to the self-parody when he plays Kit, and a sweetness often missing from his work as Jiff. Given how well Martin and Murphy seem to work together, and that the film was a modest hit, it's disappointing that they've never found another project on which to collaborate.
Honorable Mentions: Earlier fare like "The Golden Child," "Coming To America" and even "The Distinguished Gentlemen" show that Murphy was still in strong comic form, even if the material wasn't nearly as solid as that initial opening salvo. There's also no denying that his multi-rolling in "The Nutty Professor" is an impressive feat of comedic acting, although not worthy of this list.
Similarly, while the "Shrek" franchise was hit by diminishing returns fast, it's clear from watching any of them that a huge proportion of their success comes from Murphy's vocal performance as Donkey, and he's pretty strong in Disney's "Mulan" as well. Finally, of all his recent big-screen comedies, "I Spy" is somewhat undervalued, with one of his better turns (a relative term, admittedly), and of course, there's that Oscar-nominated performance in "Dreamgirls," in which he's undoubtedly the highlight, but there are performances we like more, and the film's so awful we couldn't really bring ourselves to include it.