There is no one in Hollywood’s comedic history who exploded out of the gate quite like Eddie Murphy.
Breaking into “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19, he became one of its all-time biggest stars, and soon launched a stratospheric movie career with a trio of movies that are still classics over 30 years later: “48 Hours,” “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”
Murphy says he feels recharged again.
It seemed like the guy could do no wrong.
Yet as the saying goes, everything that goes up must come down, and soon Murphy was making mostly flops like “The Golden Child” and “Best Defense” for the next decade.
Even after he launched a massive comeback with “The Nutty Professor” in 1996, he still managed to blow it again within a few years, with notorious bombs such as “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” and “Meet Dave” overwhelming his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” Ultimately, he seemed to give up.
He hasn’t had a movie released in over four years, in fact, since “A Thousand Words” promptly arrived DOA at the box office. Murphy seemed in danger of becoming a faded memory — a funny one for the most part, but a memory nonetheless.
Yet this weekend, Murphy, 55, is back in theaters with a new movie, a straight-up drama.
Called “Mr. Church,” it’s directed by Bruce Beresford of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame, and parallels much of that Oscar-winning classic’s vibe by telling the story of a black chef in 1965 Los Angeles who has a profound influence on a young white girl as she grows up.
Murphy has already drawn strong praise for the role, though early reviews of the movie have branded it as being a big cliche.
A lengthy Los Angeles Times profile in August revealed that Murphy has been looking for a chance to do something different for decades now. He admits he took too many movies because of the fat paychecks they provided and didn’t think through the impact they would have on his dwindling fan base.
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“I got on ‘Saturday Night Live’ when I was 18 or 19, so it’s been 35 years of my face,” Murphy told The Times. “You get sick of looking at people’s faces — I know I do. There are people whose faces pop up and I just turn the channel. And I was like, ‘I’m sure I’m that to some people.’ ”
While Murphy has kept busy being a dad to his ever-growing family — his ninth child was just born in May to girlfriend Paige Butcher — the seeds of his creative conflict have been growing for a long time.
Back in 1989, he tried to use his clout to be the writer, director and star of the movie “Harlem Nights,” a lavish period comedy about black gangsters that enabled him to star with his own two biggest idols, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx.
When “Harlem Nights” was met with universal derision from critics and bombed out with $60 million at the box office, Murphy almost immediately sank into one of the worst phases of his career.
The likely reason was that he had fallen victim to a typical problem among modern comedians: the need to feel like they are taken seriously as artists. It’s led one comic after another down the path to bombs such as Jim Carrey’s “The Majestic” or Will Ferrell’s “Stranger Than Fiction.”
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In Murphy’s case, the fall was compounded: The brand of comedy that led to his ascent came from his being young, brash and unafraid of offending anybody. That might have gotten a free pass from the PC police when Murphy was in his 20s, but these days, it’s hard to recapture that style without seeming immature and just plain mean-spirited.
Murphy’s best chance at recapturing the magic of his early days came with 2011’s “Tower Heist,” in which he played a street hustler who teams up with Ben Stiller to teach him how to rob a Donald Trump-like mogul. The movie got a solid 68 percent approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, yet only earned $75 million at the box office.
The problem? By choosing to keep the rating to a PG-13 to suit Stiller’s fan base, Murphy’s fast-talking street con could swear and talk trash like the Eddie of “Trading Places” day — but without saying any F words. While that may be appealing to mainstream filmgoers, it left Murphy’s diehard fans feeling like he had pulled his punches on a role that seemed custom-made for him to be a hilarious bad boy again.
In taking time off from the multiplexes, Murphy told The Times he feels recharged again and hopes the public will be curious enough to check him out. Unfortunately, “Mr. Church” is being released by a small new distributor and it will only play in a few hundred theaters rather than the 2,500 or more needed to truly compete these days.
Perhaps a decent return on that level will help him regain the bigger studios’ trust. Murphy wants to get the magic back, and told The Times of an outrageous new screenplay idea he has finished that is so R-rated (yet funny) it can’t be shared here.
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Aside from that, he says he’s giving more thought than usual to returning to the standup stage. He wants his kids to be able to see what the fuss over him was about — and not just on home video.