Abe Beame is the chosen one.
This Summer was a particularly bleak one for Hollywood. The chorus that began with Jaws and has only grown louder since Star Wars has reached a near din, as we are awash in sequels, reboots, live animation…… recreations or whatever the fuck it is Disney is extorting us with. You know, the summer movie events that come under the banner of IP that have seemingly drowned every other type of movie out. But this Summer, even much of the IP tanked. The mid-budget comedies tanked. The counter-programming indies tanked. Surely, there have been times the state of the box office has been more dire, and closer to the precipice of irrelevancy, but it hasn’t felt like that in 2019.
I’m not in the business of soothsaying, but as I’ve considered the ascent of Eddie Murphy, one of last generation’s true transcendent superstars, I’ve been stuck on two of his early, star-making performances that for me, help explain how we got here, and why those of us old enough to remember the “good” old days aren’t always particularly pleased with the current state of affairs. The two original films make for unlikely bedfellows. Released three years apart, en route to the peak of his fame, Murphy starred in the instantly timeless satire Trading Places, and the absolute shit bomb The Golden Child, arguably the best and worst movies of his career, nearly back to back (The previously covered Beverly Hills Cop and Best Defense came in between).
Together, these movies can be considered as the defense and prosecution for an endangered style of major studio movie making. They represent the giddy highs: Its genius, its capacity for surprise and innovation, and the miserable lows: the incompetence, pandering, half baked mediocrity and costly danger that can come from not letting algorithms and established familiarity greenlight your projects.
Trading Places is nothing short of a miracle. It is just as groundbreaking as the formative National Lampoon comedies like Animal House or Caddy Shack. It’s the most implicit indictment of class and the institutions the class hierarchy was erected to protect that those other comedies also touched on. John Landis, the director of Animal House, would direct Murphy in this, Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop III. It accomplishes an impressive, generation-bridging feat with echoes of the screwball societal comedies of the 30s, being very much of its Reagan era and almost scarily prescient today. If the film had a political agenda, it would be Bernie Sanders railing against the wealth gap, the callousness of billionaires and a system rigged to maintain egregious inequality.
But the film is also hilarious. The humor has aged better than any of its peers from the era. It’s anchored by three outstanding performances from three emerging stars and top to bottom great supporting roles. It’s a comedy just under two hours but perfectly paced, filled with memorable jokes, great beats and real tension.
It’s the type of work that belongs aside 80s original comedic-leaning masterpieces like Back to the Future, Gremlins (And Gremlins 2), E.T., Ghostbusters, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Big, Beetlejuice, Risky Business, and why not throw in 48 HRS, Beverly Hills Cop and Coming to America. These are all films budgeted below 30 million dollars, often the product of visionary directors that became blockbusters of their era. None would have existed without the advocacy of a bold executive willing to take a chance.
Trading Places opens brilliantly, with a montage scored to the classical strings of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, wordlessly explaining the idea the film will explore. It is Riis-like, starting with a wide lens and cutting around Philadelphia in the 80s, contrasting the old magisterial, aristocratic architecture and sculptures of this nation’s founding city with the humble morning routines of its working class poor.
We begin winnowing the focus onto Dan Akroyd’s Louis Winthorpe who is the third of his name. His posh morning routine is played to the back row, as much of the films satire will be. Aykroyd was never better than he was here. He’s a bit hammy but his smarmy privileged asshole is all jaw and self satisfied smirk, just a perfect bastard to bring low at the outset.
Next we meet the Dukes, an echelon above Winthrope’s young prince of the city, two sexless old oligarchs who live in a castle surrounded by a modern American Downton Abbey cast of servants bending to their whims, as does the country. In many ways the Dukes, even more than Billy Ray Valentine are the key to the film, and not just as big bads. Mortimer and Randolph, perfectly calibrated by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, play their roles as malignant, racist Gods with no regard for common human life. Their apathetic ruthlessness, polite and utterly disinterested in anything that doesn’t involve the continued accumulation of fortune, was a new sort of old money arch villain that rang true in 1983 before we really had an inkling just how destructive and sociopathic the super wealthy were. For me, the most affecting, oh shit moment of the film is when we discover the inciting “science experiment” that derails an entire life (their grand niece’s fiancé) is for $1, a casual, friendly wager amongst brothers. They’re like the Orson Welles monologue from The Third Man drained of malice and brought to life.
The film once again establishes Murphy as a con man. It’s depressing how his three formative, starmaking roles (Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley and Billy Ray Valentine) all positioned Murphy as a current or reformed con. It was as if Hollywood screenwriters had no better way to describe his fast twitch brilliance than as a Darwinian survival mechanism.
The model of the film operates on rags to riches, fish out of water logic and humor in the Sturges vein but it’s saying something far more insidious. There’s an angle for exceptionalism, that Murphy is the best and the brightest con man in Philly, at the right place at the right time, and perfectly trained for the greatest American con of stock trading; but it’s in Randolph Duke’s contention that nurture breeds success, in his understanding of privilege and inheritance and his complete and total comfort with that circumstance that we get a true vision of the selfish and grotesque nature of the super rich. It’s made even darker with Valentine’s quick adoption of the lifestyle and loss of perspective in the middle third. The film asserts life is chance and our entire natures are no better or worse than what we stumble into, and the wealthy are aware of this fact and solely concerned with maintaining this favorable hierarchy. Bleak and Heady stuff smuggled into a broad 80s comedy.
As miraculous as the success of Trading Places was, the failure of The Golden Child might be even more incredible. How’s this for a recipe: Eddie Murphy in his absolute prime, Tywin Lannister as a bad guy, a beautiful love interest and a premise that lands somewhere between Indiana Jones and Kundun?
Golden Child cost slightly less than Trading Places to produce (which isn’t that hard to understand when you watch the movie, as we’ll discuss shortly) and made slightly less at the box office but was still an unqualified success for Paramount’s bottom line. I don’t know if this is common amongst people my age who were barely conscious when the film was released but from the little I remembered from it, I remembered it fondly, and was pretty shocked by how poorly it holds up today. Perhaps this also helps explain why studios could afford more boldness and originality: A less discerning audience would still show up for a bomb with the right star attached. If you didn’t read the paper or watch At the Movies you may not even have found out a movie was critically panned until after you’d spent your money on the ticket, if ever.
The film opens with Murphy’s Chandler Jerrell as a dedicated, no bullshit social worker presented with an insane, far fetched mission: rescue a messianic child from the forces of evil. It’s a premise that has all the elements of something that could’ve been an all time classic action comedy, but falls flat and would be a mindless entertainment if it was even remotely entertaining.
What’s completely bizarre is how willfully Murphy, an all time genius of improv, bricks his opportunities to improve the film. He’s faced with a pretentious, clueless white cable access host, a group of kids playing ball in the park, stiff english bad guys, and a beautiful woman, all interactions that were reliable bread and butter for the comic to play off and spin gold throughout his career in other movies that he simply sleepwalks through here.
The Golden Child is fascinating because I can’t recall ever seeing failure on this grand a scale. Michael Ritchie, a legitimate director with a solid resume and chops, delivers a movie where everything, every performance, the entire Jets-offensive-line-plot, every line of dialogue, the placement of each shot, every single cut, every music cue, the Michael Colombier dot matrix printer score, the shitty in-camera effects or the grotesque amateur claymation monstrosities, the fight choreography, are so intensely and bizarrely awful that t feels like it had to be an intentional experimental art film commenting on blockbuster stupidity snuck into an 80s box office smash. But it wasn’t.
You watch a scene like Murphy’s “Brother Numpsey” bit at the airport and you see why a studio head would want to get this made. Dropping Axel Foley into Raiders of the Lost Ark sounds like a phenomenal, subversive concept that couldn’t miss at the box office. And this instinct was correct, even with a complete and total piece of shit movie the film was an unqualified success. The problem comes with the talent. The film didn’t have a braintrust of Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas clicking on all cylinders.
And this is kind of the point. The Golden Child does a far better job explaining how we got here than Trading Places. Something we rarely discuss is how good the major studios actually are at making movies. Even when they are spectacularly unsuccessful — for instance with a Dark Phoenix — they fail because of things like the insane price tag, or tone, or thoughtfulness of story, or critical and commercial apathy. It’s still an actual fucking movie. It is rare, and almost special to see a film as incompetent as this one (but not completely extinct. This year’s Serenity was so spectacularly bad and incoherent it was nearly celebrated as an exercise in nostalgia for uh, rotten tomatoes).
There’s a great series running at The Ringer about comedy in the 90s and one of the essays focuses on the insane year Jim Carrey had in 1994. When he shit gold and turned original (well, The Mask was IP but only technically resembled the product that made it to screen) small budget dumb comedies into 9-figure properties with sheer charisma and star power. Murphy was a star in this model. Trading Places was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1983 behind Return of the Jedi, Tootsie and Flash Dance — even The Golden Child was the 8th highest grossing film of 1986. Carrey was nearly as hot as Murphy in his prime with a much shorter period of white hot success, but he was also able to leverage this stardom into holding studios hostage and jacking his salary into the stratosphere.
When you factor in the increased sophistication of the average movie goer ushered in by the internet, the pre-release word of mouth critical barrage ushered in by the internet and the multitude of streaming options making a night out at the movies less palatable……… ushered in by the internet, the desire for studios to unmoor themselves from the star system and make the IP the star becomes understandable.
As the proposition of making a film became more expensive and risky, by freeing themselves from the star system with Carreys and Murphys at the center making occasionally appalling decisions, they could minimize the risk factor of having to choose between “Good” star or director passion projects like Trading Places and poorly made derivative shit like The Golden Child. After all, if Michael B. Jordan made an equally poor original property like The Golden Child today, would it have succeeded on even close to the scale this film did in its time? Would a great comedy like Trading Places even hit? I don’t think so.
In fact, once again a step ahead of the entire industry, it’s a thought process Murphy himself gravitated towards following the critical disappointment of The Golden Child. Over the course of the next 10 years Murphy would star in two installments of his Beverly Hills Cop trilogy, a sequel to 48 HRS and a reboot of The Nutty Professor (Not to mention a subsequent Professor Sequel and two installments of a Doctor Doolittle reboot). These were all scores for him, and through the late 80s and early 90s he sprinkled in some passion projects like we discussed last time with Boomerang as well as Coming to America, Harlem Nights, The Distinguished Gentlemen, and uh, Vampire In Brooklyn (coverage forthcoming), but the increased movement towards safe bets on sequels and IP gradually took the energy out of his career and the luster off his once-in-a-generation stardom.
This is not to say competence and intelligence has become irrelevant amongst the gatekeepers. Who knows where we’d be if Kevin Feige wasn’t a fearless, creative and incredibly talented executive? I point to him because he’s obviously one of, if not the most important executives ever in the modern history of Hollywood. There have been great executives throughout the history of the business, but few have had the sweeping visionary approach and creative talent of their own to in many ways make talent on both sides of the camera irrelevant even while partnering with and empowering it.
Of course, The Golden Child has a bizarre and shitty ending. Charles Dance’s Sardo Numspa essentially cracks like an egg and a giant Play Doh skeletal-yet-dad-bodied hell dragon climbs out of him. With some telekinetic assistance from J.L Reate’s Golden Child Murphy is able to kind of arbitrarily win the big bad showdown and stab the demon with a magic knife, killing it, and the Golden Child brings Charlotte Lewis’ Lee Kang in a full Sleeping Beauty motif back to life. The superstar, his girl, and his little adorable macguffin emerge into the sunlight of a picaresque L.A. afternoon and trudge down a hill into the city. The screen jarringly, abruptly fades to black and the credits roll on Eddie Murphy and what may go down as one of the last completely inept, wildly successful blockbusters.