While suffering through this year's Oscars—ha ha, Billy Crystal kissed George Clooney, ha ha—it was hard not to think, "Geez, if Brett Ratner had kept his mouth shut, none of this would have happened and Eddie Murphy could have been the host." Indeed, the news last year that Murphy had agreed to host February's Academy Awards was greeted with a lot of cheers by folks who hoped that the comic superstar could bring an element of danger and excitement to a ceremony that's never been particularly pulse-pounding. But there was another sentiment I heard mentioned a lot, too: Eddie Murphy is back! Not that he'd gone anywhere, mind you: Dude was still showing up in at least one movie a year. What they meant was that their idea of who Murphy is supposed to be—brilliant, edgy, a human live-wire—was back.
I hate to break it to folks, but I think that Eddie Murphy may be gone forever. And maybe it's time we started accepting that.
I was thinking about this because his new movie, A Thousand Words, opens today. Actually, it's not a new movie. Shot way back in 2008, the film was reportedly loathed in test screenings, and Paramount has been sitting on it ever since. Sounds like that was a good idea: Barely screened for critics, the film is currently at zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
That low Tomato score is hardly news—Murphy tends to make movies that critics don't like—but what's interesting is how often reviewers still want to assure us that, really, this isn't the real Eddie Murphy up there on the screen. Bemoaning how bad A Thousand Words is, the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips wrote, "The problem with Eddie Murphy? It is not a problem of talent, or fearlessness. He has plenty of both. But in A Thousand Words ... he's a first-rate talent stuck in yet another third-rate piece of blech." This is a common theme in reviews of Murphy's movies: Gosh darn it, Eddie, you sure are a gifted comic actor, how did you fall into this pile of garbage? To be honest, I even did it back when Meet Dave came out, mentioning how talented a comedian he is, even though the movie wasn't so good.
There's a blind spot that critics (as well as back-in-the-day Murphy fans) have about his recent work: We seem to believe that somehow he either isn't aware of the movies he's making or that he's somehow learned his lesson and will turn things around. Why? Why do we think that? Why do we keep telling that lie to ourselves? Why can't we simply look at the arc of his career—especially over the last 10 years or so—and figure out that he isn't interested in being the "early, funny" Eddie Murphy we assume he still really wants to be?
The answer, of course, is that he occasionally teases us with the possibility that he might want that, too. Every once in a while, he'll do a Bowfinger. Or a Dreamgirls. Last year, he was in Tower Heist, which got so-so reviews but at least showed us a glimpse of the Murphy of old. Around that same time, the normally press-shy Murphy sat down for a lengthy Rolling Stone interview where he sounded like he had seen the light about his recent career choices. "I don't think I'm gonna be doing a lot of family stuff for a while," he said. "I don't have any interest in that right now. There's really no blueprint, but I'm trying to do some edgy stuff." If that wasn't enough, he even hinted at maybe—just maybe—going back and doing standup for the first time in more than 20 years. For a lot of fans, his comments seemed to be confirmation that, yes, Murphy knew he had made bad choices of late and was going to atone.
But then the Oscar gig didn't happen, Tower Heist was only an OK commercial performer, and then, poof, there went all that talk about a comeback. That's not to say that Murphy didn't mean what he said to Rolling Stone or that a future comeback isn't possible. But considering how much Hollywood stars like to capitalize on their heat when they have it, it's interesting that we haven't heard a peep from Murphy since he bowed out of the Academy Awards. For years, he's preferred to lay low, which you can understand considering how much unwanted media attention his 1997 "pulled over by the cops with a transsexual prostitute in the car" incident provoked. Still, no matter how much he talked about wanting to start doing some "edgy" stuff, he also sounded pretty content in that RS interview. Although he'd prefer you not call him a recluse:
"Recluses are nasty, with long nails, don't wash their ass... I'm too vain to be a recluse. But homebody, absolutely. I'm 50 years old, beautiful house, I'm supposed to be home, chilling.
My whole shit revolves around having this peace of mind. It's peaceful, quiet, that's my day-to-day. I play my guitar, hang out with my girl. My kids went to their mom's this week. I'm chilling, no stress. After all these years, I've done well and I'm cool. I feel comfortable in my skin, I've saved some paper, everybody's healthy, my kids are beautiful and smart, doing different things, it's all good. I'm trying to maintain my shit like this, and do a fun project every now and then."
Does that sound like a guy fully committed to reclaiming his mantle as one of his generation's most daring comedic talents? No, it does not.
There are certain comedians we loved because of their early "dangerous" years, and we want to convince ourselves that those years define them as people—and that anything else they do that we don't like after that isn't representative of who they actually are. Under that logic, Steve Martin couldn't possibly be the guy who does Pink Panther or Cheaper by the Dozen: No, he's still the sharp, acerbic wiseass of The Jerk. Some other guy named Bill Murray did those Garfield flicks, not the Bill Murray we know and love. Hell, there are even some people—like me—who try to convince ourselves that Adam Sandler, who was so great in Punch-Drunk Love, is performing some sort of bizarre social experiment with the rest of his career.
Well, that's just stupid—and it's even stupider to expect stars to stay the way they were when we liked them best. Eddie Murphy was a brilliant comic mastermind who was on Saturday Night Live and in some great movies and standup specials. But he's also the guy who's done a lot of dreck for a long time. He seems OK with that. The rest of us will have to be, too.