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Eddie Murphy in Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 2011 (Sundholm, Magnus)
Eddie Murphy in Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 2011 (Sundholm, Magnus)

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

With Tower Heist, Eddie Murphy's back on top Add to ...

“Slide. ... His name is a verb” This is Eddie Murphy talking to Regis and Kelly about the character he plays in Tower Heist – which did brisk opening business this weekend (although, surprisingly not as much as Puss in Boots).

“Slide” is a noun and a verb, and Murphy is arguably also talking about himself, since he also occupies two categories: the (dormant) film superstar and the brooding, enigmatic comic whose talent has never fully been developed in a single film (barring the two that merely record his stand-up acts).

Previous columns by Lynn Crosbie

Largely off the radar since his virtuosic turn as R&B singer Jimmy (Thunder) Early in 2006’s Dreamgirls, Murphy is now poised to reclaim that superstar status and, perhaps, to realize the vast talent he has, to date, only showed us in blinding flashes.

Tower Heist is just the beginning.

Murphy also appears on the cover of Rolling Stone this month, and in that issue, he is gracious and forgiving of old grudges – including a long-standing beef with his TV alma mater, Saturday Night Live. The show has ridiculed him cruelly, more than once, in its Weekend Update segment.

He also tells the magazine he wants to move away from family films; that he may return to stand-up and, most intriguingly, that he is plotting a script for himself and fellow comics Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan called Jamal and Tyrell and Omar and Brick and Michael’s Wack-Ass Weekend.

And he has been asked to host the Oscars next year – another recuperative act – given that he walked out of the show early in 2006 after losing the Best Supporting Actor trophy (for the Dreamgirls role) and that he criticized the entire Academy for its bias against African-American actors when presenting the Best Picture award in 1988.

If Murphy eases back into the monstrous fame he received in the 1980s, he may be able to actualize his great comic and dramatic gifts once again.

Tower Heist shows he’s on his way. Looking as good, as he always did, but better built and fully matured at 50, Murphy easily steals the film with his ad-libbed remarks and sheer magnetism: In a brief exchange with Gabourey Sidibe ( Precious), both actors smoulder over a “poll/pole” pun; as his character Slide quarrels with Ben Stiller’s Josh, he overpowers him with angry, lewd suggestions and riffs about his repulsive childhood asthma.

It has always been hard for Murphy not to get everyone’s attention. In his first big comeback, 1996’s The Nutty Professor, he was so violently appealing as Buddy Love that one felt this raging, comic rake was not only the Professor’s alter ego but showed the very essence of Murphy, all-too-often stuck or seduced into films that cannot accommodate him in his entirety.

Since his explosive debut on SNL in the 1980s at age 18 (after beginning his stand-up shows at 15), Murphy has drifted in and out of fame. Considering his long career, one tends to remember Murphy in a series of vignettes – his impressions of James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass and Michael Jackson; his brief appearance in Coming to America as the leader of a tawdry group called “Sexual Chocolate.”

Or in larger stretches, one recalls his serious, romantic work in Boomerang, his sly dog Axel Foley in the Beverly Hills Cop series and his fat, sassy Donkey in Shrek.

Among those, Boomerang stands out. Featuring an all-black cast, the 1992 rom-com attempted to push Murphy forward as a sexy leading man. And while he was sexy, mainstream audiences were still not prepared for a crossover romantic lead.

Audiences have never been fully prepared for Murphy, period – a trickster who does midnight-blue stand-up, whose personal life is strictly personal, who has openly mocked interviewers and fans alike.

What is exciting about his current comeback is that in his newest incarnation (whether doing the PR rounds or acting), he is impeccably handsome, quietly gracious and devious: the Wack-Ass Weekend film is virtually guaranteed to change the vanilla comedy climate as we know it, with Murphy in this mode and with this powerhouse team of comics behind it.

Further, his decision to work with four black comics feels like a response to the medium-funny Tower Heist. If Stiller and Casey Affleck – and most surprisingly Matthew Broderick – are occasionally hilarious in this film, they are still floundering around Murphy. Murphy’s presence in the ensemble feels like Lenny Bruce guest-starring on How I Met Your Mother, or Richard Pryor opening for Dane Cook.

If he does move ahead to work with Chappelle, Lawrence and the rest, he will have to raise his game to meet his co-stars for once – as opposed to the sweet, yet strangely depressing manner in which he skirmishes with the Tower Heist crew.

“I don’t know you!” Slide keeps yelling at Stiller’s Josh in one scene.

One senses that he doesn’t want to know him, or to be interrupted again, on his way back up.

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