We still love you Eddie Murphy!

December 10, 2006 — We never thought we’d see the day, but Eddie Murphy fans can once again hold their heads high.
After a seemingly endless stretch of mediocre, self-indulgent comedies, Murphy’s supporting role in “Dreamgirls,” out Friday, very nearly steals the show from both BeyoncÈ and her underdog rival, Jennifer Hudson.
As James “Thunder” Early, an old-school R&B singer who employs the Dreamettes (BeyoncÈ and Co.) as backup singers, Murphy flexes both comedy and musical muscles that one would think had atrophied from lack of use. His onstage performances – which particularly recall his James Brown impersonation from ’80s-era “Saturday Night Live” – are on fire.
Perhaps Oprah said it best, when she had Murphy and the rest of the cast on her show recently: “I think we didn’t know that you had that in you,” she told him. (Twice.)
Given the caliber of performances we’ve seen from him over the last decade, it’s entirely possible even Murphy himself didn’t know he had that in him. Audiences and critics certainly didn’t, and are reacting with delight.
“It’s like the old Eddie Murphy!” says Hollywood Reporter online columnist Martin Grove. “It’s a standout supporting-actor performance. He’s going to get a nomination.”
Sure enough, Oscar buzz is already building for Murphy, who’d be contending against some other very strong, dramatic performances this year (Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” Jackie Earle Haley in “Little Children,” Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine”).
But none of those has nearly the comeback zing of the role that may put Murphy back on the map of cinematic respectability. As far as career moves go, it’s right up there with another legendary reboot:
“It’s the same sort of thing John Travolta did when he took a role in ‘Pulp Fiction’,” says Grove. “It showed what his real ability was, and he kind of reinvented himself.”
And nobody was more overdue for a reinvention than Murphy, whose last quality performance – besides a memorable vocal turn as Donkey in “Shrek” – was in Steve Martin’s relatively low-profile 1999 comedy “Bowfinger.” Aside from that blip on the radar, nothing Murphy’s done has made a major impact since all the way back in 1988, with “Coming to America” (and even that was greeted with a collective “Eh” by critics).
In that film, he discovered his talent for playing several roles simultaneously – remember how he turned out to be the white guy in the barbershop? – which would pave the way for later films such as “The Nutty Professor” and its sequel, in which he played eight characters.
But for an actor who starred in some of the best comedies of the early ’80s – “Trading Places,” “48 Hours” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” not to mention two raucous (if highly un-PC) concert movies, “Delirious” and “Raw” – Murphy squandered his good buzz with astonishing speed.
Even in those early films, he began to get a reputation for being unpleasant to work with. John Landis, who directed him in “Coming to America” and “Trading Places,” made his feelings public in a recent interview, describing Murphy’s habitual lateness, rudeness to his fellow actors and unwillingness to rehearse.
He also became more of a control freak, starting with 1989’s “Harlem Nights,” which he starred in, wrote and directed. That poorly reviewed film kicked off a steady decline for the comedian that included such disasters as “Boomerang,” “Beverly Hills Cop III,” “Holy Man,” “Showtime,” and the animated TV show, “The PJs,” which was criticized by Spike Lee and others for its racial stereotyping.
To say nothing of 2002’s “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” which reaped some of the most scathing reviews in recent memory.
Then there were the high-grossing (and often just plain gross) family-friendly comedies: “Dr. Doolittle,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Daddy Day Care.”
For each, Murphy’s paycheck hovered around the $20 million mark. Financially, he’s come out on top. His presence alone can open a major Hollywood movie, no matter how much of a dud it ultimately turns out to be.
Still, his comments to Oprah about “Dreamgirls” were revealing:
“The movie works on so many different levels,” he said. “It’s beautiful, it’s well-acted, it’s well-photographed, it’s written well. . . It was the first movie I’ve ever been in where I was, like, just, you know, across the board – I think it should be recognized, you know?”
We know. We couldn’t agree more.