Eddie Murphy and I did part of our growing up in the same hometown: Roosevelt, Long Island, N.Y. The one time I met Murphy -- in 1982, while he was filming his first movie, 48 HRS., on an L.A. street disguised as San Francisco -- I mentioned the coincidence, to his disbelief. I had to name my old address from the '50s, the parochial school across the street, the elementary school down the block before he accepted that the polite white journalist in front of him had shared his turf. All he would say is, "The neighborhood changed a lot since then."
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.
The irony of Murphy's The Nutty Professor is that it's singularly opaque when it focuses on Murphy-as-hipster, and blissfully revealing when it focuses on Murphy-as-Klump, who's as much a creature of "family fun" as Bill Cosby's Fat Albert. It may be that inside Murphy, that rabid master of comedy-club "whoosh," there's always been a kids' star struggling to come out.
In Phenomenon, the reigning comeback kid, John Travolta, also comments -- disastrously -- on his image. In films from Saturday Night Fever and Blow Out to Get Shorty Travolta has displayed tremendous instinctual intelligence, but in Urban Cowboy and Perfect and this movie, his presence is so blank it's worrisome. Back in 1983, when asked if he thought he was smart, Travolta replied, "Yes. Bottom line. I don't know if that's an appropriate thing to admit to, but I do. Now, that's different from being well-read and having a wide vocabulary, though both those things are easily handled -- just pick up some books and read a dictionary." (In the same interview, he remarked, "If I am androgynous, I'd say I lean toward the macho androgynous.")
In Phenomenon he acts out his book-reading scenario as his character devours the contents of an entire library in a small Northern California town. He's a simple garage mechanic, George Malley, whose brain becomes activated beyond genius level when, on his 37th birthday, he witnesses a celestial light (or so he thinks). Suddenly he's able to analyze real-life problems with crystal clarity, like how a rabbit infiltrated his lettuce garden (he fenced it in when he thought he was fencing it out), and before long he's cracking a government security code, coming up with a super fertilizer recipe so his best friend, Nate, can grow corn, and predicting earthquakes. Director Jon Turteltaub and writer Gerald DiPego may think they're saluting humanity's cerebral potential, but their comedy-drama does the opposite: It depicts common folk as being paranoid about above-average intelligence, and proposes that even the most altruistic and good-hearted nonconformist can rend the fabric of a close-knit hamlet. Of the mechanic's buddies, only the town doctor, "Doc" (Robert Duvall), never wavers in his faith, no matter how upset he is that Travolta can now beat him at chess; George's pal Nate (Forest Whitaker) and his budding true love, Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) -- the screenwriter may respect polysyllabic concepts, but he adores one-syllable names -- are temporarily put off by George's brilliance. (Forget about macho androgyny: This movie celebrates abstinence. George and Lace don't kiss until way into the third act.)
There is something nerve-racking about the way DiPego writes and Travolta embodies this man. At the beginning, as regular George, he's so placid and non-mental that his unself-conscious amble proclaims ordinariness: It's as if his body moves without neurons. When he's transformed, he ambulates -- well, not all that differently. What he does is segue to a supposedly higher plane of simplicity: He sees through complications in a snap. Maybe that's why the advance blurbs invoke Forrest Gump. Or maybe we're positioned to feel as if we're the Gumps, and that if you don't have Mama around to compare life to a box of chocolates, you should seek out someone like the newly curious George. A fraudulent coda shows that the townspeople absorb George's wisdom and learn to revere him -- after he's gone. Phenomenon, like Nate, uses souped-up fertilizer to grow the same old corn.
The truly daring star performance of the week belongs to Alain Delon in Rene Clement's Purple Noon, the lush 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley that's been out of circulation for decades. (The movie opens commercially in San Francisco July 3 and has an East Bay benefit preview on July 10 at the Pacific Film Archive.) Delon tears into the central role: a clever, affable sociopath named Tom Ripley. He's been hired to persuade a shipping magnate's son, named Phil Greenleaf in the movie, to leave an Italian seaside village and go home to the U.S. But Tom finds he'd rather absorb the identity of this heir to a fortune than be the agent of his return. The plot is the same in the book and in the movie, but the emotional pitch is more high-strung, the texture gaudier on-screen. Highsmith's Tom is in a state of homosexual denial. Delon's Tom is a flamboyant bisexual. (In the book, Phil's hometown is New York; in the movie, it's San Francisco.) For the first half-hour, Tom and Phil (the urbane, malevolent Maurice Ronet) enact a series of polymorphously perverse, emotionally sadistic games that make the ensuing betrayals and murders seem satisfying and inevitable.
The movie doesn't attempt the detailed, matter-of-fact entry into Tom's warped mind that makes the novel so terrifying. (In some ways, Highsmith's book is like a cross between Henry James and Jim Thompson.) And it doesn't achieve the combination of queasiness and thrills that Hitchcock brought off in his Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train. But right up to the moralistic, not-so-grand finale, Clement's sure-footed handling of the plot and performers holds you. Clement may not be inspired, but he's shrewd, and he's capable of master strokes, like showing Tom develop his forging skills by enlarging Phil's signature and projecting it on paper sheets pinned to a wall. Three-and-a-half decades haven't dulled the shock of seeing Tom dress in his opposite number's clothes and kiss his own image in the mirror, repeating words of love he's heard Phil mouth to his fiancee. Delon throws himself into the role. He's part passion flower, part Venus' flytrap, and he has a sort of feral wiliness. The badly altered ending wilts because it makes Tom out to be a chump -- and Delon is the wrong performer to communicate chumpiness. Throughout his years of stardom, no actor "spun" off-screen scandals (such as the 1969 murder of his bodyguard) more cunningly to augment rather than taint his movie image. Even near his career's start, in Purple Noon, he must have sensed he could use Tom Ripley's pretty-boy exoticism as a steppingstone. (David Shipman writes in The Great Movie Stars that years later, on British TV, Delon "admitted that he had been homosexual, but his succeeding remarks suggested that this was but one facet of a bizarre existence.")
Purple Noon wouldn't make my top 40 thrillers, but it is the most gorgeous film noir in color. Whether he's photographing an open-air fish market or a killing on the rolling sea, the great cinematographer Henri Decaë comes up with colors and images that are eye-popping and fetid at the same time: He creates a visual hothouse from which evil grows. When Delon's Tom Ripley stares at the face of a slimy ray, it looks like they're exchanging trade secrets.
The Nutty Professor and Phenomenon screen daily at area theaters. Purple Noon opens Wednesday, July 3, at the Embarcadero Center in
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