"Who is America's Dad, NOW?" - The Evolution of Eddie Murphy
In 2006, Eddie Murphy sat on the stage of the iconic Inside the Actors Studio. Relaxed and confident, the former King of the Box Office was getting rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his performance in Dreamgirls. It had been 10 years since his last comeback, 1996’s smash hit The Nutty Professor. After that, the comedian found some success giving his star power to mostly bland family comedies (Dr. Doolittle, The Haunted Mansion) and his voice to a few certified animated classics (Shrek, Mulan), but never seemed to find the right vehicle for his unmistakable blend of comedic edge and leading man charm. But with Dreamgirls, the world was rediscovering a once in a generation talent. Emboldened by his resurgence, Eddie told James Lipton and a packed Pace University that he was working on a new comedy that would harken back to the Eddie Murphy that burst on the scene in the 1980s.
That film was Norbit.
Instead of a return to the top of the comedy world, Norbit was roundly rejected. While it would be the most financially successful comedy Murphy had in almost a decade, Norbit’s juvenile humor and offensive stereotypes would turn off so many people, to this day is it cited as a possible reason Murphy would lose Best Supporting Actor to Alan Arkin (I’m still mad about this). The ten years that would follow would be Murphy’s most sporadic. The modest success of Tower Heist hinted at a possible return to glory, but his most promising projects would never materialize. This fallow period would peak in a 2015 return to Saturday Night Live for its 40th Anniversary special. It would be Murphy’s first appearance to the stage that made him a superstar in over 20 years and anticipation was high. So when Murphy walked on stage and gave a brief “Thank You” only to awkwardly stand there until a poorly executed cut to commercial, it felt like a poetic capstone to the past decade: the tease of something special crushed by an underwhelming payoff. Perhaps it was best to leave the memories alone and let Murphy retire in peace.
Not. So. Fast.
Not content with limping off into the sunset, Murphy has returned with a ferocity matching his heyday. Murphy kicked off this new phase of his career playing comic icon Rudy Ray Moore Netflix’s Dolemite is My
Name. The film was seen as a triumph for Murphy, netting him a Golden Globe nomination and serious Oscar buzz (he did not get nominated. I am still mad). Murphy followed this up with a proper return to SNL, reprising iconic characters, starring in some instantly classic new sketches and netting Murphy an Emmy in the process. Murphy is now starring in Coming 2 America, a long-awaited sequel to arguably the best movie from his run as Comedy’s biggest star. While reviews have been somewhat mixed, as these long-delayed sequels tend to be, the Amazon Prime release had the biggest debut weekend for any streaming film released in the past year. So while not the critical darling Dolemite was, it has certainly been embraced in a way that surpasses anything from the last 20 years of Murphy’s filmography. It also sets the stage for an impending Beverly Hills Cop 4 that will be more anticipated than it has any right to be.
So how did Murphy do it?
The first, and most obvious, is Murphy choosing better material. Dolemite is My Name is arguably the best script Murphy had been attached to in years (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, an award-winning duo responsible for other successful biopics Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt) and the perfect vehicle for Murphy’s specific skill set. No other actor can be delightfully crass and sensitive in equal measure, and Dolemite harnesses this talent in a way perhaps no other movie has. It’s hard to imagine a film about a foul-mouthed comedian making a movie where a Kung-Fu pimp rips a dude’s heart out having pathos, but such is the magic of Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s iconic SNL run in the 80s was, in part, the result of a collaboration with writer Barry Blaustein, who would go on to write Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. For Coming 2 America, Murphy brought back Blaustein but added Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, perhaps the most prolific writer of socially-adept comedy working today. This selectivity also extends to finding a director with whom to collaborate. In the 80s, Murphy famously paired with John Landis for Trading Places and Coming To America (though their relationship was strained and Murphy would come to regret working with him on Beverly Hills Cop III). Both Dolemite and Coming 2 America are directed by Craig Brewer, and it’s easy to see why Murphy trusts him. Both films move swiftly and contain both comedic and dramatic beats, allowing Murphy’s full range of skills to be on display. Make no mistake, Eddie Murphy is a singular talent, but as this recent run suggests, it takes a solid creative team to generate the kind of material where a star of Murphy’s caliber can flourish.
Beyond just the creative teams he has put into place, Murphy has surrounded himself with a gaggle of comedic talents. Unlike his previous hits which are mostly singular comedic vehicles (with all due respect to Harlem Nights, which was a disappointment that audiences eventually came around to), both Dolemite and
Coming 2 America find Murphy at the center of some truly gifted comedic ensembles. Dolemite sees Murphy sharing the screen with the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes. Coming 2 America teams up Murphy with the cast of the original and adds Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan and (again) Wesley Snipes. In both cases, all serve up laughs and hold their own with their star (and in the case of Snipes, might just steal the films from under him). Perhaps this takes the pressure off Murphy, easing the burden of having to carry a film on his own. Perhaps it’s just him wanting to surround himself with funny people he knows he can riff with. Whatever the reason, it’s the first time in Murphy’s career where there are multiple hilarious characters in his films that aren’t all played by him.
While better creative teams behind the camera and better ensembles in front are important, perhaps the biggest reason for Murphy’s resurgence has to do with an evolution of the man himself. I can’t stop thinking about Murphy talking about Norbit in 2006. He seemed so sure that this was THE ONE. Pairing that interview with the film paints a picture of a millionaire comedian woefully out of touch with what audiences find funny. And truthfully, that happens to every big comedic star. Eventually, either through no one telling them no, the actor’s ego becoming too big, or simply the passing of time, stars tend to lose that connection to their audience and to changing comedic tastes. What makes Murphy’s current run feel special is that he’s one of the few who have seemed to listen. Take his return to SNL. The question was never whether we would see Mr. Robinson or Velvet Jones again, it was whether those characters would seem horribly outdated. We shouldn’t have worried. In both cases, Murphy was able to take these artifacts from a bygone era and put them in a modern context that was as sharp and insightful as it was funny. Mr. Robinson mines humor from
the gentrification of his neighborhood and Velvet Jones learns about a women’s agency in her own sexuality via an appearance on Black Jeopardy. In Coming 2 America, many of the jokes and even the central plot revolve around learning to evolve with the changing times. While Akeem bucked tradition in finding his love, in the sequel he is less willing to do so when it comes to allowing his daughter to rule Zamunda. While some might categorize this as a backtracking of the character, it sharply addresses the inconsistencies of men when it comes to breaking down social norms. It’s all well and good until the norm in question supports our personal worldview. And it’s certainly a far cry from the Murphy of old, whose famous stand-up concert films trafficked (some would say wallowed) in the type of misogyny and homophobia typical of that era amongst “edgy” comedians. In a 2019 interview, Murphy apologized for his “ignorant comments.” The focus on female characters in both Dolemite and Coming 2 America seems like Murphy putting those words into action. At a time when many of his contemporaries are decrying so-called “cancel culture,” Eddie Murphy is evolving with the culture. At the end of Coming 2 America (spoiler alert), Akeem tells his daughter that she will one day rule Zamunda, but in the meantime he will look to her to help him makes changes to Zamunda. This feels as much of a character arc as it does Murphy outright stating that he is listening to his audience and responding in turn. Murphy has promised a return to stand-up comedy once live performances come back. While 5 years ago, this seemed like a threat, after his recent output, it feels like a gift. It’s truly thrilling seeing a comedy legend find a new comedic voice while regaining the swagger that we all fell in love with 40 years ago. Some have said it is hard to be funny in 2021, but they are wrong. Just ask Eddie Murphy.