The Eddie Murphy Project: Look Upon the Works of Paycheck Eddie and Despair

Abe Beame continues his series on Eddie, looking back on some pretty regrettable work.
By    March 18, 2020

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Abe Beame‘s summertime banger didn’t make the final cut for the Nutty Professor soundtrack.

We were somewhere around Imagine That, on the edge of Haunted Mansion when the drugs began to take hold………

For the last several years, I’ve been delving into the work and legacy of Eddie Murphy, and in doing so have employed a number of angles when considering his 40-year body of work. We’ve discussed what he did for the action comedy, aside from inventing it, and how race played into his roles in the 48 HRs franchise and the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy. We looked at some of his best and worst work from the 80s and how it predicted where Hollywood was heading in terms of developing properties. We discussed Eddie’s relationship with misogyny and homophobia in his standup and how it’s translated in Boomerang, along with his importance in representation and class for upwardly mobile African-Americans in film. We looked at the iconic characters Eddie originated, and how that personality had been employed throughout his great 80s run into the early 90s. And finally, we looked at how Eddie began to withdraw from that personality, essentially from himself, and began to literally hide in character, both performatively and physically in his prosthetics laden work in the late 90s and 2000s.

It would be easy to leave this series there. To allow his incredible streak of greatness to be preserved in amber and walk away leaving the man’s dignity intact. But I am nothing if not a completist, not to mention a glutton for punishment. And more importantly, not telling the full, honest story of Eddie’s career would leave this portrait incomplete — it would take much of the bite out of the purpose of this entire series. It would be a story with no moral and no ending.

Because in the late 90s, into the 2000s and 2010s, Eddie Murphy reliably produced some of the worst popular films in recent memory — quite possibly ever. To me, the output represents a kind of late capitalist sprawl that preceded, and potentially even precipitated the current climate of ruthless, algorithm-driven movie production. So for the penultimate installment of The Eddie Murphy Project, I indulged in a bit of Gonzo journalism. I watched every last piece of shit movie Eddie made between 1997 and today, with a few omissions for films we either discussed before or we’ll be discussing in the finale. 

So welcome to my doomed boat ride down the blood and oil-spotted backwaters of commercial American filmmaking in the aughts. These films are uniquely bad art, but that isn’t to say they’re without perverse academic value. They are built on flimsy premises, poorly acted and directed, with a tangibly disinterested star at the center of them. Sometimes the films randomly made money, sometimes they lost a lot. But they are a kind of snapshot. The body of work stands as an autopsy of the old studio system’s bloated and desiccated corpse. The last exegesis of poor decision making and incredibly imprudent money spending as Americans weaned themselves off the religion of weekly moviegoing forever. 

So let’s start here. It was an unimpeachable run of box office dominance that allowed Eddie the autonomy he was granted to headline and often greenlight these pieces of garbage, so we should consider the business his worst films did. This will also serve as a table of contents for the work we’ll be discussing.

Metro (1997): Lost $23 Million
Doctor Dolittle (1998): Made $223.9 Million 

Holy Man (1998): Lost $47.9 Million
Doctor Dolittle 2 (2001): Made $106.1 Million
Showtime (2002): Lost $7.3 Million
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002): Lost $92.9 Million
I Spy (2002): Lost $19.3 Million
Daddy Daycare (2003): Made $104.4 Million
The Haunted Mansion (2003): MADE $92.3 MILLION
Meet Dave(2008): Lost $9.3 million
Imagine That(2009): Lost $32 Million
A Thousand Words (2012): Lost $18 Million
Mr. Church (2016): Lost $7.3 Million

To save you the trouble, not just Eddie Murphy, but one of the darkest Hollywood superstar runs we’ve ever seen, grossed a total of $269.7 million dollars, which is just staggering. This doesn’t take into account advertising or God knows how many expenses that aren’t baked into the budget and revenue numbers you can find online. He also probably helped close several studios by himself because many of these projects were spread around to different companies, but that is still quite a balance sheet considering the man lost $112.2 million in 2002 alone. It also helps explain how Eddie was able to keep churning these things out. He was bankable, he could open and sell a movie the way few other stars can anymore. Enough producers considered his projects, no matter how awful they looked on paper, worth the risk.

There are three categories of paycheck Eddie films: weird, awful and boring. I’m listing those in order because while it sounds like an awful film would be the worst sin, it isn’t. In the room, there’s nothing worse than a boring movie, and Eddie made a lot of them during this fallow stretch.

Eddie’s first project after his fatsuit triumph in The Nutty Professor was Metro, a return to the well that attempted to recycle all the things we loved about the 48 HRS films and the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy and bricked miserably. 48 HRS is the great grandfather of Metro and in many ways Metro is peering back at the brilliance of that film, 17 years later, through the wrong end of a looking glass. It was a time before the industry realized you could just trot out the same formula for these tired franchises and the movie going public would keep returning to the trough (myself included). What should’ve been Beverly Hills Cop 4 was this late term abortion that finds Eddie playing Denzel to Michael Rappaport’s Ethan Hawke in an incoherent cop thriller with no thrills.

As a career move, this was Eddie attempting to revive what he did well: Playing the charismatic protagonist in an action comedy. There were a few crucial distinctions. For one, in 1997 Eddie Murphy was 36. Not old by any stretch of the imagination, but no longer the ingenue, no longer the rising star. He was a known entity but didn’t lean into his age and history with his audience as many of his peers and the generation of stars who followed him would. 

In Metro, despite being a veteran, he’s reprising the swinging dick cop/con man who plays by his own rules. But here it falls flat. We don’t care about this character. We’ve seen smarter and more compelling versions of him before. The writer, director, and Eddie himself do nothing to raise the stakes or pique our interest. It’s an autopilot performance we’re supposed to buy simply because he showed up. He would return to variations of this character in I Spy, and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, both awful. In each case, there’s very little excitement in getting to know him on our part as well as his, and the very worst sin of all is he’s not funny. Even when he’s riffing, it’s unfunny at best and lame more often than not.

Consider the stable of directors and writers Eddie collaborated with during this run. It’s an anti-murderers row of jobbers and hacks, craft people that write and direct in the same manner you might put together an IKEA bookshelf. During his prime run, Murphy had worked with the likes of Walter Hill, Martin Brest, Reginald Hudlin and John Landis. But Metro was directed by Thomas Carter, a filmmaker who started in television and ended up back there, as many of Murphy’s directors during this period did (See: Stephen Herek in Holy Man, Betty Thomas in Doctor Dolittle & I Spy, Steve Carr in Doctor Dolittle 2 & Daddy Daycare and The Adventures of Pluto Nash with Ron Underwood). There was a strain of conservatism in choosing the directors he worked with. As an actor throughout this era, Eddie was a consummate Biden voter.

After Metro Eddie made Doctor Dolittle, an exercise in assembling a wealth of talent and draining all the charisma from their vocal performances. Albert Brooks plays a suicidal tiger. It’s bad. But the film performed well and Eddie found what would be an unfortunate crutch for him throughout this century, as a family film star. When people say “They don’t make films like that anymore”, they’re usually referring to medium budget well written and well acted dramas for adults, rarely will you hear it in regards to the medium budget live action family film pitched to elementary school kids and their parents, but these have gone away as well, I would assume almost solely due to the existence of Imagine That and A Thousand Words.

Going in the direction of the family comedy was always a bizarre fit for Eddie. He was a master of shock and provocation, normally relating to race or sex. But he was following a career trajectory once common in the late twentieth century. After a few decades establishing a rapport with an audience, comic legends like Rodney Dangerfield or Robin Williams would take easy money in LCD, PG-rated shlock studios like Paramount would dump into multiplexes on a Spring weekend with little competition on the calendar, and families with young children would go because there was nothing else appropriate playing and they had nothing else to do. 

For Eddie, it was a particularly bad look because he literally has no chemistry on screen with children. When forced to interact in a scene, his only move is to perform for his movie child, not to interact or express affection in any credible way. Also, the most thankless role in movies during the aughts was playing Eddie Murphy’s spouse in one of these things. They’re all forced to play stern wet blankets and are complete and total afterthoughts to the story with little to say and nothing to do.

This resulted in a string of truly horrific films: A Doctor Dolittle sequel, Daddy Daycare, The Haunted Mansion, Imagine That and A Thousand Words. Incredibly, each film is a variation on the same theme. Eddie plays a workaholic so focused on career he’s missing out on precious time with his family. Imagine That in particular, a story by the guys who wrote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and features Thomas Haden Church in an absurdly offensive role as a Native American and is about Eddie’s daughter’s blanket that has the magical power of providing Eddie with insider stock tips is so bad it’s almost riveting. Almost.   

So what happened? What led Eddie down this path of reckless career destruction when the first 15 years had been so meticulously controlled, when he’d been almost detrimentally hands on about each decision in the films he decided to make. Tyrannical even in ways that harmed his reputation and caused a kind of industry-wide schadenfreude as he went down. 

One theory is a necessity born of dire financial straits, that his life finally caught up with him. Eddie ended a 13-year marriage from his first wife, Nicole Mitchell, in 2006. Just that initial divorce settlement was for $15 million dollars. He’s also had children with three other women including Mel B from the Spice Girls. For just the child he had with Mel B alone, Eddie pays $51,000 a month and by the time his daughter Angel turns 18 he will have paid Mel B $10 million dollars. These figures don’t include child support for the other seven children he’s a father to, or whatever his cost of living is with his current wife, Australian model Paige Butcher, and their two young children.

Here’s Eddie himself on how money has impacted his decision making: “Every bad decision I’ve made has been based on money. I grew up in the projects and you don’t turn down money there. You take it, because you never know when it’s all going to end. I made Beverly Hills Cop III because they offered me $15 million. That $15 million was worth having Roger Ebert’s thumb up my ass.” 

But I’m not sure this tells the entire story. Depending on what list you’re reading he’s the fifth-highest grossing actor of all time. With a new Netflix deal valued at $70 million dollars, his net worth is estimated to be around $200 million. Even with a lavish mansion in Los Angeles he built himself and an island in the Caribbean, it’s hard to imagine he was ever so destitute that A Thousand Words sounded like a good idea. So why did he keep churning out this crap? 

It could be more instructive to consider the films Eddie made that fell outside the realm of family fare. After Metro flopped, Eddie seemed to sense that he needed to branch out, and he did, taking on several roles in films with wild concepts that were about as far from his wheelhouse as you can get. In Holy Man, an alternately wacked out and lazy satire taking aim at late 90s consumer culture with Jeff Goldblum, he plays G, an affectless mysterious American Buddha. In Bowfinger and later, in Norbit he played a nerd, in Meet Dave he played an empty vessel controlled by a platoon of tiny aliens. 

But the one thing these films have in common is they’re all failures. Eddie began following the “One for me, three for them” philosophy but the ones for him were even worse than the dreck he begrudgingly performed in. He appeared to be unsure which direction to take his career in, so he made half-assed attempts to wade into several different pools he clearly did not belong in. The sci-fi misfires like Meet Dave and Pluto Nash are almost more dispiriting than the Daddy Daycares and Haunted Mansions because when he’s merely a cog in a larger studio property there’s a semblance of maturity and professionalism to the films, however bad or disposable. In the films where he’s the engine and the star attraction you can actually watch a man carelessly exhaust his last bit of goodwill with his audience in real time.

And that idea of Eddie as a cog is what is at the heart of the problem with his performances. The personality, the identity, the movie star quality he brought to each of his classics was gone. In the ’80s, Eddie was at the center of his films both physically and spiritually, his sense of humor, his wit, his dickishness, either it was written to that quality or Eddie infused the films with it in his improvisation on set. During this later stage in his career he became a cipher that could fill the lead in whatever shitty unproduced script he could find floating in the studio system ether. His parts could’ve been played by anyone, they’re completely unremarkable. This sort of malleable unexceptionalism would’ve been unthinkable twenty years prior.

I remember catching an interview I can’t track down with Eddie from the early ’90s explaining why he had found directing Harlem Nights to be more of a nuisance than anything else. How “minutiae” like lenses and camera placement were distracting him from the most important thing, his performance. What emerges is an egotism. He wanted to be seen as the architect of his career, the creative force behind the projects he was helming (Which you can see play out in his feud with John Landis, but didn’t seem to want to do the work of editing his ideas, working through drafts of scripts, walking away from an idea when it just isn’t coming together. He wanted everything in his career to match the ease with which improvisation, comedy and charm came to him, along with all of an auteur’s accolades and respect. He became a diva, a bad collaborator onset who wanted all the credit for his successes and none of the blame for the failures.

Eddie was the most successful when working with good directors who knew enough to stand back and let him cook, to doctor the script on set in the camera with his ad-libs and the little grace notes of gesture and delivery he brought to performance. As he came to dominate his films and get more comfortable steam rolling his directors, giving himself more and more time to vamp and perform to the detriment of story and tone, the work suffered and his career faltered. Rather than rededicate himself to challenging material and demanding directors, Murphy settled for sleepwalking through interchangeable roles in generic pictures, for the compensation yes, but also perhaps to maintain his own stardom, because he feared being forgotten and the well going dry. 

It’s a kind of laziness, certainly not in the conventional sense because as we’ve discussed before, the effort it took to make The Klumps and Norbit was extremely demanding, demanding hours in makeup and creative performances requiring Murphy to shoot around himself. But it’s a laziness of comfort. The few times he has ventured into more challenging material over the course of his later years, like in Dreamgirls, the sleepy Mr. Church or last year’s (great) Dolemite is my Name, he’s been snubbed by the conventional gatekeepers of prestige greatness, probably only reaffirming Murphy’s apathy when it comes to doing what comes naturally to him. When it got hard, he took the easy way. He took his ball, went home, and made Daddy Day Care until they wouldn’t pay him for it anymore.

Many of us have difficult middle passages in our lives. The fire of youthful ambitions snuffs out, we settle into our routines in work and family that will define the next 20-plus years, and we content ourselves punching clocks, collecting checks, however repetitive and joyless it becomes. Sometimes, ennui sets in. We make bizarre, even harmful decisions out of a restlessness or discontent. And this seemed to be the groove Eddie slipped into, or flailed in. He was as mercurial and perfunctory as a superstar can be, while making a series of horrific choices in his career as well as his personal life. 

It’s hard to understand now because with actors like Pitt or DiCaprio, the bar has been raised, and like LeBron, the idea of a prime has been extended and edited, but Eddie falls into an older tradition of a comedian wunderkind who shoots his shot, rides the wave and then coasts on the borscht belt circuit, playing houses packed with schmucks over the high holidays, taking the bag and running into the night. What I struggle with when it comes to Eddie is the why. He seemingly had access to all the old magic and chose to starve out his patient fans. I’ve read interviews with Landis and John Carpenter from the mid-90s expressing their frustration with Eddie on set. That they would try to push him towards his comedic talent and he’d resist because he had a different idea for how he wanted to present to his audience. It’s quite simply stupidity masquerading as savviness, a near-lethal case of smartest guy in the room syndrome. There is a spite, almost a malice to it all. 

I have a working theory that Eddie soured on the game. Consider the bad reviews for Harlem Nights, the embarrassing prostitute scandal, the successive wives and divorce settlements, the tabloid fodder and disrespect from late night institutions he helped build. At the time, he was a man of outsized and fragile ego, and like Kobe refusing to shoot, he decided to coast because it was easy and lucrative and when he challenged himself with projects like Boomerang, critics would still give him shit. So why bother? Why continue to put himself out there? Many of us feel Eddie Murphy failed us. But perhaps if he was being honest he’d say that we failed him. Eddie became outrageously famous in his teens and seemed arrested in his development during his prime. It’s only now, we pray, he’s finding the maturity he should’ve moved into with the onset of the 90s and middle age, rather than the bankrupted cash grabs he subjected us all to mercilessly for 20 years.

Eddie Murphy’s most notorious bomb was The Adventures of Pluto Nash. It’s about a decent, intelligent, wildly charismatic dude who just wants to run a respectable, profitable business on the moon. His plan is disrupted by a machiavellian egomaniacal dick……. who also turns out to be Pluto Nash. Pluto was cloned, and that clone immediately began plotting to take everything Pluto had built and kill the older version of himself that we know and love. In other words, he’s trying to destroy himself.

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