Who is Eddie Murphy acting for?
That sentence may be a little bit strangled in terms of grammar, but it communicates clearly the central question that I think has to be asked of Eddie Murphy at this point in his career. Yesterday, there was an announcement that Murphy would be stepping in to replace Samuel L. Jackson in the new movie “Cook,” based on the life story of Susan McMartin.
If you want to read the piece that inspired the film, you can do so here. It's very sweet, very simple, and suggests a relationship that easily could carry a smart, character-driven film. McMartin also wrote the screenplay, and Mark Canton is producing with Bruce Beresford directing. That's interesting because Beresford's biggest cultural moment came with “Driving Miss Daisy,” another movie that hinged on the emotional connection between a white woman and her black servant. That's some tricky ground for any film to mine, and it can work beautifully or it can feel really pandering, depending entirely on execution.
In the article on Empire where the story broke, Canton talked about how this is going to be a change of pace for Murphy, and compared it to a Jennifer Aniston film called “Cake” that premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival. In that film, Aniston is intentionally stripped of glamor, a tact that many actors follow when doing “serious” work. Canton said, “'Cake' startled people because Jen gained a lot of weight and cut her hair and has a lot of scars and it's a serious drama. 'Cook' is another one. Everyone now wants to do what Matt McConaughey did, so we're financing these movies when we think they're put together the right way. This will be Eddie Murphy like you've never seen him. Of that, I can assure you.”
Okay, well, those are some pretty big words, especially when Murphy is involved. You will find few people who have been as staunchly in Eddie's corner over the years as I have. I believe Murphy to be almost infuriatingly talented, and I use that word specifically because I have such mixed emotions over what he actually makes versus what he is capable of making.
That's why I asked that initial question. When Eddie Murphy first exploded onto the national consciousness, the thing that was most arresting about him was that full-volume need to entertain that just poured out of him. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone work the “Saturday Night Live” studio audience quite the same way he did, before or since, and it was magic watching the way he could ride a wave of laughter or turn it up or get them to simmer down. The control was what made Murphy seem so awesome, and it felt like he really did care about that audience and his connection to them.
The same was true of his concert albums or his concert films. I saw him live one time on the tour that was filmed for what eventually became “Eddie Murphy: Raw,” and it was amazing. Even in an arena, packed to the rafters and noisy and no good for staging a comedy show, Murphy was able to create that connection to every person in that place, and he absolutely understood what was happening as that audience reacted to him.
Watch his recent movies, though. Tone-deaf doesn't even begin to describe it. One of the things I find most infuriating about Hollywood is how often I've met people who would not watch the movies they make if their own names weren't on them. That makes me crazy. I have a hard time picturing Eddie Murphy sitting down to watch “A Thousand Words” or “Imagine That” or “Meet Dave” for fun.
When I saw “Dreamgirls” for the first time, I walked out of the theater and ran into the director, Bill Condon, and found myself almost in tears as I tried to explain to him how much it meant to me to see an Eddie Murphy performance in a real movie that suggested that all the talent and potential we've seen in him is still in there, still ready to be tapped by the right filmmaker on the right project.
But now… I'm not so sure I believe that. I mean, I think talent is talent. Eddie has bags of it, and any time he wants to, he could tap into it, but I don't believe that's the goal anymore. I don't think Eddie particularly likes movies anymore. I don't believe Eddie particularly likes the business. And I don't believe he reads projects based on what excites him or makes him reconnect to that eager 19 year old kid who burned so incredibly bright.
Instead, the most cynical part of me hears the description of “Cook,” and it sounds to me like Oscar-bait. Having Beresford direct is the thing that really makes me itch. I don't think I'd want to make that movie twice, but Beresford is in the same boat as Eddie, someone who hasn't really put it together in a significant way in a while now, and it feels like he's retreating to safety. That's never the best place for a filmmaker to be when making something. And if the primary reason Eddie's making the film is so he can potentially be in that Oscar conversation again, as he was with “Dreamgirls,” I wonder why. After all, he was clearly incensed when he didn't win that night, and the Oscar season requires a type of campaigning that Murphy's clearly not interested in, so he'll most likely never actually win. Instead, he'll just put himself through an ordeal again that won't result in the prize, rendering it all pointless and frustrating.
When I look at a future that includes a “Twins” sequel called “Triplets” and a “Beverly Hills Cop 4,” I'll admit it… I sort of hate Eddie Murphy. Those films sound vile. “Twins” was a bloated, miserable, unfunny CAA deal memo that somehow got released as a movie, and a sequel to it is not only unnecessary, it is an act of aggression against the audience, a spirited “F U” to the entire notion of demand driving the act of making sequels. And as someone who saw the TV pilot for “Beverly Hills Cop,” completely with painful obligatory Eddie Murphy cameo, I am comfortable stating that Axel Foley has left the goddamn building.
Maybe “Cook” will be great. Maybe Eddie will show up and deliver. But I've noticed that the only times he truly seems free now are when he's not the one we're looking at onscreen. If Rick Baker builds him a suit that renders him unrecognizable, or if he's doing an animated voice, he seems to come to life. But when it's him onscreen, there is something, some strange barricade, that seems to hold him back, and it gets more pronounced the older Eddie gets. So unless Rick Baker's going to completely transform him for this, I'm not sure I buy that Eddie Murphy has it in him to do something we've never seen before. I think that time passed.
And as a fan of Eddie Murphy, it sort of breaks my heart.