Eddie Murphy Is Back
By Noah Gittell
Here are the most exciting four words I’ve written all year: Eddie Murphy is back. The beloved comic actor, who hasn’t starred in a hit movie since 2003’s “Daddy Day Care,” and hasn’t been relevant for even longer, has a new Netflix movie, “Dolemite is My Name,” that is garnering him the best reviews of his career, as well as legitimate Oscar buzz. He has also announced a long-awaited return to stand-up comedy with a new special, and will be hosting “Saturday Night Live” on December 21, returning to the stage where he became a star so many years ago.
It’s an unprecedented comeback. Murphy was arguably the biggest star of the 1980s, debuting as a 19-year-old on “SNL” and then launching an incredible run of movies with “Trading Places,” “48 Hours,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” and “Coming to America.” Sandwiched in between films were theatrical stand-up specials “Raw” and “Delirious” (touchstones for a generation of young comedy fans), a rap album, and a legendary performance hosting the 1985 Video Music Awards.
For the next 15 years, Murphy fluctuated between hits (“The Nutty Professor,” “Boomerang”) and misses (“Harlem Nights,” “Vampire in Brooklyn), but following his iconic voice performance as Donkey in 2001’s “Shrek,” it took a sharp downward turn, with Murphy fully casting off the edginess of his youth and starred in an endless run of stale family comedies, such as “Meet Dave” and “A Thousand Words.” He got an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls,” but his campaign was damaged by the il-timed release of “Norbit,” an offensive and downright unfunny comedy that was in theaters during the Oscar voting period and may have loomed large in the minds of voters.
Since then, Murphy largely retreated from the public eye. Now that he’s back, it will be fascinating to see if and how he has evolved. The early returns are promising. “Dolemite is My Name” is a smart and funny biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, a blaxploitation star whose series of low-budget films about a crime-fighting pimp made him a crossover hit. The Netflix film is a fine showcase for Murphy’s skills, allowing for both the edgy improvisation that made him a star and the more finely-textured character work that he has shown himself capable of more recently. As Moore, Murphy shows a vulnerability that has eluded him in the past, and it points to a potentially rich and thrilling third act for his career, one which Hollywood rarely afford its fallen stars.