Of course: In the '60s the population of Roosevelt had gone from white to black with astonishing rapidity, and I didn't presume to know the ins and outs of that metamorphosis. Murphy did know -- and he wasn't letting on. Murphy had emerged from black suburbia: a culture that has found expression (albeit of a debased sort) in TV sitcoms rather than movies, at a time when "urban action film" is a euphemism for "shoot-'em-up with a black star." Murphy became a huge hit in 48 HRS. as a metropolitan thief, not a suburban wise guy. And even if, a year later, he allowed a Rolling Stone cover story to penetrate the sheltered environs of his teen years and note that his best stand-up-comic characters came straight out of Roosevelt (like gay hairdresser Dion), the persona that made and kept him a film superstar was pure urban fantasy. Murphy never registered as strongly in movies after 48 HRS. -- without directors as deft and gritty as Walter Hill, his wise-ass act grew flimsy in the Beverly Hills Cop series, and when he and Hill made Another 48 HRS. a mere eight years later, his reflexes were shot. (See Armond White's collection of cultural criticism, The Resistance, for a tart African-American angle on Murphy as a product and a victim of '70s pop and of '80s marketing, with its emphasis on deracinated, youthful chutzpah.)
The instant media cliche about Murphy's comeback playing a fatty in The Nutty Professor is that working under a ton of Rick Baker's magical makeup is what freed him up to conjure a kicky, novel character. In this half-baked remake of Jerry Lewis' 1963 chef-d'oeuvre, Murphy is funny as Professor Sherman Klump, who experiments on himself with a formula that isolates and alters fat genes. But I think the main reason Murphy's performance as Klump is so relaxed and full of beans (yes, there are a plethora of fart jokes) is that Klump's character is softer and gentler -- far more suburban -- than the sharpshooters and slickers of his first decade and a half in movies. (Even the settings he inhabits are suburban. He teaches at a fictional college named Wellman; the movie was shot in and around UCLA and other landscaped grounds, like San Marino's Huntington Gardens.) Klump is a sensitive soul: His billowing fat may make him look slovenly, but inside he's got an arrested elegance. He isn't like the other hefty adults in his family (all enacted amusingly by Murphy), who feel at home in their bulk. He's always upending things in the classroom or the lab, then picking up after himself mentally as well as physically: concocting excuses that provide an illusion of dignity. As Klump, Murphy is emotionally nimble, casually intense. Murphy has been observant enough to adopt a neurotic academic's dithering way of speech (it takes four clauses for him to ask a girl to dinner), and he makes you feel every wiggle that Klump needs to maneuver into a chair -- and every dagger that pierces through his adipose.
Directed by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective) and written by the writing teams of David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein and Shadyac & Steve Oedekerk, the movie is full of blunt have-things-both-ways comedy -- simultaneously it exploits Klump's poundage for laughs and pathos. Amazingly, Murphy pulls it off. Some of his funniest moments come when he's stuffing his tear-streaked face in front of the TV set (where he's tuned to a Richard Simmons-like diet-and-exercise guru, also played by Murphy); he knows he's nervous-eating, and Murphy gives Klump enough interior weight to assure us he'll soldier through.
The Nutty Professor is structured as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde farce, and it founders on the Hyde side of the equation. A date with pretty faculty member Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett) goes sour when a nightclub comic humiliates Klump with a string of onstage put-downs. He swigs the fat-gene formula and turns into a slender, hopped-up Eddie Murphy. Klump's alter ego, who calls himself Buddy Love, is an arrogant opportunist. But because the moviemakers keep Klump's dilemma on a primal physical level, audiences can't help experiencing the slim-down as a victory -- especially after Love exacts revenge for Klump, ruthlessly razzing that lousy comic. Love eventually reveals himself to be little more than a walking hard-on, literally overdosing on testosterone, and the movie loses its comic bearings. So does Murphy. This film's Buddy Love is meant to be a parody of Murphy's usual screen image -- Murphy nearly breaks the fourth wall when he screams that he thought Buddy Love was the man people wanted him to be. That persona is so devoid of content that it defeats parody. All Murphy can do to mock himself is yell and laugh louder, and lather on self-love with a turkey baster.
To the uninitiated, it might sound perverse to say that a remake of a Jerry Lewis movie lacks the subtlety and intricacy of the original. But Lewis' The Nutty Professor holds up as an eccentric classic (as San Franciscans can see for themselves when it screens at the Castro on Friday, July 19, with an in-person tribute to Lewis' co-star, Stella Stevens). Even in the role of the bucktoothed, bespectacled professor (whom he called Julius Kelp), Lewis rechannels his antic nature in surprising ways. The good-hearted intellectual is so clumsy and insecure that he becomes an energy vampire, while his secret identity, Buddy Love, an amateur Rat Packer, is such a full-throttled narcissist that he charges everybody up. The juxtaposition of the slap-happy nebbish and the suave hipster mirrors the 10-year team-up of Lewis with Dean Martin. What's fascinating and creepy about the first The Nutty Professor is that Buddy Love is also a nightmare projection of the worst aspects of Lewis himself. If the professor was a variation on the lovable noodniks Lewis had embodied in the past, Love echoed (to quote Lewis biographer Shawn Levy) "the loud, arrogant, abrasive, abusive, and conceited" figure Lewis struck on talk shows and in the press. Though both versions of The Nutty Professor close with a be-yourself message, Lewis' has the guts to indicate that there is something life-enhancing about Buddy Love as a priapic paragon of cool -- at the end, Stella Stevens' character stashes Kelp's potion in her pockets. Erotic, sharp, and unsentimental: That's our Jerry Lewis.