Eddie Murphy is an incredibly talented man. He can do goof-off comedy, he can do impersonations, he can do action and he can do gut-wrenching drama. The thing is, he can also produce stinkers so abhorrent their names are enough to bring a tear to a movie exec's eye. The man's an enigma, and in a seven page attempt to solve that enigma, here's Empire's tried-and-true Viewer's Guide for the big man. Oh, and Tower Heist's out this weekend, but that's by the by.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Dreamgirls (2006)
Before Dreamgirls came along, Murphy’s live-action appearances in the early 2000s looked more like a rap sheet than an IMDb profile. First there was Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), followed by Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001), then Showtime (2002), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), I Spy (2002), Daddy Day Care (2003) and finally, The Haunted Mansion (2003) – none of them threatening to get his name brought up at Academy voters’ dinner parties. Then, just like that, he won himself a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe and an Oscar nod for his truly astonishing turn as lecherous charmer James “Thunder” Early, a exuberant amalgamation of party-loving 60s soul singers like James Brown and Marvin Gaye. Refusing to be packaged up as a sweet and dandy pop singer, Early’s career circles the drain as The Dreams’ rockets into superstardom – and thanks to Eddie’s scene-stealing performance, provided a fantastic contrast to their almost unfathomable success. Even if you're, well, odd in the head and think Murphy is the least funny man alive, there’s no doubting his acting chops in this, easily his finest dramatic performance to date.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
How could we not kick things off with Beverly Hills Cop? It’s the film that made Eddie Murphy a goddamn superstar, after all. Astonishingly, the character of Alex Foley was originally set to played straight – not by Eddie Murphy, but by the likes of Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone, who at one point or other both circled around the script. But once Murphy arrived, it instantly became the Eddie show, his Trading Places-style fast talk bouncing perfectly off his cop colleagues Judge Reinhold and John Ashton, and his infectious energy turning every frame into a hyperactive jolt of cinematic sugar that left audiences clapping, whooping and quoting as they filed out the cinema. Plus, there’s Harold Faltermeyer’s synth riff “Axel F” that bounces into every brilliant moment, notably when our man Alex has just served up some salmon and is about to pop a banana (or three) in someone’s tailpipe.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: 48 Hrs. (1982)
Kick-starting the Hollywood tradition of buddy cop movies – a rich vein of action and wisecracks that’s brought us Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and, um, Tango & Cash – 48 Hours is the great granddaddy of bickering partners desperate to get the job done, but incapable of getting along. Rewatching 48 Hrs. 30 or so years later, there’s no doubt it’s more violent than the genre it inspired, and less afraid to get down and dirty. The best scene of the film is Murphy’s, when he slides his way into a Redneck bar – complete with sheepskin chaps-wearing pole dancer – and proceeds to bollock the bar owner, temporarily steal his hat, do a cowboy impersonation and proclaim “….there's a new sheriff in town. And his name is Reggie Hammond. So y'all be cool. Right on.” Right on, Eddie, Right on. Such a shame that the sequel, Another 48 Hrs. (1990) was so disappointing, but still, the original remains one of Eddie’s finest, funniest hours.
RECOMMENDED: Shrek (2001)
Shreks 2 through Forever After might not be to everyone’s taste – the second perhaps a too pop-culture heavy, the third plain bad, the fourth too dark – but the original Shrek was an absolute barnstormer, and the first totally CGI feature to challenge the Pixar boys. Hell, Farquaad’s authoritarian kingdom is one of the least subtle digs Disneyland’s ever endured, with the whole “animated fairytale movie about animated fairytale movies” gag keeping the adults sniggering and the ogre-farting-in-the-bath numbers making sure the kids are riotously entertained too. As for Murphy, this was easily the funniest thing he’d done in years, proving once again that somehow the best comedy writers seem to end up working in animation. Plus, that one line of Murphy’s – “I’m a flying, talking donkey!” – is do damn good that once you think about it, it’s nigh-on impossible to get it out of your head. See what we mean?
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Coming To America (1988)
When you think of Eddie Murphy these days, chances are you think of some low-grade, kiddy-friendly romp where he gets into scrapes, makes weird noises and takes on multiple "wacky" roles. But whereas Norbit and The Nutty Professor don't stand up to multiple viewings – or single viewings, to be honest – John Landis’s fish-out-of-water classic Coming To America provides both Murphy and his comedy comrade Aresenio Hall plenty of opportunities to dress up and be silly… and, would you believe it, be funny too. Jumping between the utterly daft and the rib-clutchingly hilarious scene to scene, it remains one of Murphy’s funniest hours to date, and undeniable proof that the whole multiple role comedy shtick can work when the script, director and stars are right.
FOR THE FAN: Bowfinger (1999)
In 1999, Steve Martin needed a hit, and so did Eddie Murphy. With Bowfinger, they both got one – not a huge, blockbusting one, but definitely a hit, and that’s what counts. Directed by Frank Oz and penned by Martin himself, Bowfinger is, well, a bowfinger (or “V-sign” for those not aware of the archaic lingo) to the Hollywood film factory, as well as Scientology – here called “MindHead”, though Martin denies the links – and the acting profession as a whole. Murphy plays a dual role here, as superstar Kit Ramsey and his incredibly-similar-looking brother Jiff, getting the chance to act a pompous, neurotic buffoon as well as a nerdish, goofy dweeb. Poking fun at himself as much as movie-making as a whole, Bowfinger is a refreshing, engaging high-concept comedy that might not tickle everyone’s funny bone, but remains well worth a watch for those of us still a bit upset that Martin continues to play Inspector Clouseau and worries that Murphy might not be able to laugh at himself. Plus: that highway crossing scene – worth the ticket price alone.
ONE TO MISS: The Adventures Of Pluto Nash (2002)
In picking just one mega-bomb from Murphy’s chequered history, you’ve got a pretty tough decision to make. Do you go for Vampire In Brooklyn (1995), a movie that carved a bloody gash in both Wes Craven and Murphy’s careers, or Beverley Hills Cop III (1994), the film that killed an incredible successful comedy franchise? Or maybe Another 48 Hours (1990), a sequel that might have done good business at the box office, but tainted the memory of the original? But when you think about it, it’s none of those, because the worst Eddie Murphy movie face-off is between puerile, pathetic Norbit (2007) or the towering turkey that was The Adventures Of Pluto Nash (2002). The “winner”? Pluto Nash, by a whopping $203 million. Norbit may have been truly terrible, but it actually made a $100 million profit, whereas Pluto Nash suffered a $103 million loss. One of the biggest box office flops of all time, it stands limply alongside The Alamo, Cuthroat Island, Mars Needs Moms and Speed Racer, remaining not only utterly unwatchable, but a complete financial disaster too – a highly unusual situation for an Eddie Murphy movie to be in.