What the hell happened to Eddie Murphy? In the ‘80s, the world was his oyster. He was starring in all the funniest movies and he was one of the most popular standup comics on the circuit. He had it all! So, where did it all go wrong? When did he give up the standup, lose his edge, and start making terrible crowd pleasing family movies? It’s like a Greek tragedy, except he kind of imposed his own downfall on himself. Let’s not remember him for that. Let’s remember him for these 10 brilliant movies from his heyday! (He’s not dead, by the way.)
No, this is not the science fiction horror movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal about the first signs of alien life found on the International Space Station – this is the prison movie starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as a pair of inmates who have been wrongfully convicted of murder and sentences to life in prison. To this date, it is the last R rated movie that Eddie Murphy made, and it’s also one of his funniest. Murphy and Lawrence are, as you might expect, a hysterically well matched on screen duo. This movie was based on a story that Murphy cooked up and it has an original neo soul soundtrack composed by R. Kelly and Wyclef Jean that sounds awesome. It might not be a perfect movie in terms of plot and character development, but it provides consistent belly laughs, which is what’s really important for a movie like this. It’s a shame that the movie failed at the box office – grossing just $73 million at the global box office on a production budget of $80 million – because maybe if it had been successful, the studios would be letting Murphy make more R rated movies and his career wouldn’t have gone so rapidly downhill.
Not only is Boomerang one of the finest and funniest romantic comedies of all time – it doesn’t follow any tired formula and the relationships and the characters all feel fresh and funny and real – but it also provided a ton of opportunities for African American actors. Every single actor in the main cast is black: Murphy, Robin Givens, Halle Berry, David Alan Grier, Martin Lawrence, Grace Jones, Chris Rock, Geoffrey Holder, Eartha Kitt. How many movies can you say that for? And the crew that Murphy hired was black, too – the director was black, the guy who scored the music was black. This was Eddie Murphy using his clout in the film industry to bring opportunities to black people, so what was Spike Lee on about when he accused him of not doing that? He looked at actual works of cinema that happen to be romantic comedies – like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – rather than just phoning it in with an artificial and uninspired visual style. Clearly this kind of approach pays off, since he ended up making one of the greatest romantic comedy movies of all time that lives up to both the ‘romantic’ and the ‘comedy’ parts of that description. Lazy directors pick just one.
8. The Nutty Professor
In this comic retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Eddie Murphy lives up to his hero Peter Sellers in playing multiple different characters: Sherman Klump, his cocky alter ego Buddy Love, and his entire family. When Murphy decided to remake the Jerry Lewis comedy The Nutty Professor, he did it to prove to the media, for whom he had become a “whipping boy,” that he still had the ability to laugh their asses off. He said, “I had a bunch of movies that didn’t work. People were saying, ‘Eddie’s not good,’ so I was like, ‘Not good? Let me show you what I can fucking do. I’ll do something where I play all these different characters.’ It’s a trip, it seems every five or six years, you have to do something to remind them that they like you. Then you get offered a bunch of stuff, because you were in a hit, and some of the movies might be shitty, but they throw so much paper at you that you can’t say no to it. That happens a bunch in this town. The problem when you’re doing those flicks for a lot of paper, though, is on TV, they show your hit right next to your flop, on there forever.”
7. 48 Hrs.
The “buddy cop” action comedy movie subgenre in which two mismatched cops are paired up to tackle crime that would eventually give us such movies as Bad Boys and The Other Guys – and especially ones in which the cops are of two different races, like Rush Hour and Bad Company – is often accredited to Lethal Weapon. But it didn’t start with Lethal Weapon. It started with 48 Hrs., the action comedy that paired up Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy as a hard-ass cop and a convict who has been reluctantly temporarily paroled to help him with his latest case. Director Walter Hill has explained that he made the movie work so well by relying on the actors’ chemistry, rather than the themes of race: “Even though I enjoy working in genres, the point is always to explode them or give them a transfusion. So, I made a very conscious decision to go with the elements of personality of the two players, rather than be overly genuflective to the narrative. Thrusting a white policeman and a black convict together carries so much gravity that we didn’t have to beat the white/black thing to death. If it works, it’s because of the actors’ personalities.” And of course, it does work.
Steve Martin wrote this movie for himself to star in. He plays the title role as a struggling film producer who tries to scam Hollywood into thinking he’s working on some big blockbuster while he tries to pull off a science fiction action movie on a shoestring budget by using devious methods to trick his crew and get a famous name in his cast. So, in theory, it is his movie. But Eddie Murphy is really the star, as he plays two roles – and he plays them both hilariously. His first role is that of Kit Ramsey, a huge action movie star whose personal life Bobby Bowfinger is surrounding with actors and props from his film and then shooting it, thus getting the movie star in his cast against his will. What steps the premise up to hilarious levels is the fact that Ramsey is a member of a cult-like religion called MindHead (read: Scientology), so he actually believes that the poorly acted alien invasion in the film is happening for real. Murphy plays Ramsey’s terror brilliantly in these scenes, but it’s not as hysterical as his second role: Kit Ramsey’s simple minded twin brother, Jiff. That freeway scene is one of the funniest things ever put on celluloid. Thank you, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy.
The material in Delirious, Eddie Murphy’s 1983 standup comedy movie, has been criticized in recent years for being homophobic, but he has since apologized for his use of offensive slurs, writing in a one page statement to the LGBTQ community, “I deeply regret any pain all this has caused.” But back in the early ‘80s before political correctness made everything controversial, this was the funniest standup comedy you could find. This HBO special is only remembered for the homophobic jokes, but there were jokes about other social issues that was more current and progressive, like racism and Reaganomics. Plus, about halfway through the set, he delivers one of the most hilarious routines in the history of standup comedy about ice cream trucks and how he used to make fun of the kids whose parents couldn’t afford to buy them ice cream, which leads into an even funnier routine about how his mother used to throw her shoe at his head if he did something bad. Murphy also took advantage of the swearing allowed by HBO and not by NBC, which aired Saturday Night Live, on which he was a cast member. Over the course of this 69 minute special, he says “fuck” 230 times and “shit” 171 times.
4. Coming to America
Hollywood has long been criticized for its portrayals of Africa. As The Guardian puts it, “Cinema has long reduced Africa to a faraway land filled with wild animals, wars, poverty, and AIDS.” The Marvel movie Black Panther was praised this year for going some ways towards fixing that problem, with its more comprehensive and accurate portrayal of the continent, but don’t forget that Eddie Murphy did that years before in Coming to America, a movie in which he plays an African prince who doesn’t want to be set up in a marriage to somebody he doesn’t love and leaves for America to find his soulmate. Arsenio Hall, who plays the friend who comes with him, proves to be a hysterical comic foil for Murphy. The movie is filled with hilarious gags that don’t necessarily serve the story, but are very memorable and funny in their own right nevertheless, like the McDonald’s rip-off McDowell’s that often faces legal action from the real McDonald’s for its use of a similar name and a “golden arcs” logo instead of golden arches. It’s just a hilarious movie, through and through, and it’s one of the sweetest, funniest, and most brilliant movies that Eddie Murphy has ever made.
3. Trading Places
Trading Places is more than just a buddy comedy starring the perfectly paired Dan Aykroyd with Eddie Murphy. And it’s more than just a hilarious movie filled with hilarious gags and hilarious jokes. It’s actually a very interesting cinematic study of the class divide and race divide in America. It’s a fiercely inventive and modern retelling of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, except it’s ‘The Rich White Guy and the Poor Black Guy.’ Still, a study of class and race alone is not funny. That’s not a good time at the movies. But a movie starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy at the top of their game certainly is! With a plot that takes surprising and unexpected turns, a movie that consistently keeps the laughs coming is elevated even higher. The film actually had a very real impact on the financial laws in America. Since it pointed out that misappropriated government information can be used to trade in the commodity markets, Gary Gensler took the movie before Congress and got them to actually change the regulations that are enforced on the world of finances. In fact, an insider trading law went on to become known as the “Eddie Murphy Rule.”
Eddie Murphy performed his standup comedy concert movie Raw in 1987. By then, he was one of the biggest names in comedy in the world. With a worldwide box office haul of over $50 million, this is still the highest grossing standup comedy movie of all time. This was more than thirty years ago, and even the standup movies released by Kevin Hart today only gross about $20 million, so those are pretty impressive numbers. But of course, all of this would be totally irrelevant if the jokes and the bits and the routines were no good, but there’s nothing to worry about, because some of the funniest of Murphy’s career are in this movie. There’s the bit about the phone call he got from Bill Cosby where he criticized Murphy’s excessive use of profanity in his act and then he called Richard Pryor for advice and Pryor told him to tell Cosby to “have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.” There’s the routine about his mother promising him as a child to cook him a hamburger that was “better than McDonald’s,” only to make him a “welfare burger” when they got home. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Beverly Hills Cop
This movie was originally conceived by the producers as a straight action movie with a bleak, gritty tone starring Sylvester Stallone as a no-nonsense cop. Instead, we got something much, much better. We got a hilarious comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a yes-nonsense cop who says things like, “Disturbing the peace? I got thrown out of a window! What’s the fuckin’ charge for getting pushed out of a moving car, huh? Jaywalking?” Whenever Axel Foley goes undercover, it gives Murphy the chance to do a whole new character – and every single time, it’s hilarious! It’s a master class of comedic performing, and the great thing about Axel as a character is that he might mess around and joke about things, but he’ll be serious when it’s time to be serious. If someone he cares about is in danger, then he treats that with the emotional weight that it deserves – that’s when the joking stops. A mistake that a lot of action comedies make is not knowing when to get serious and that’s when you end up with a movie that feels insubstantial and unrealistic. This is where Beverly Hills Cop succeeds and stands head and shoulders above every other movie in the action comedy genre. It’s the movie that definitively made Eddie Murphy one of the biggest comedy stars in the world, and there’s a very good reason for that.