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Please don’t squeeze the comedians

What happens when formerly edgy comics go soft? By Brian Bellmont
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It’s official: Eddie Murphy has become one of his own punch lines.

Remember the brash comic’s side-splitting stand-up routine about haunted houses (as captured in the seminal 1983 performance film “Delirious”)? “This is beautiful,” Murphy says, smiling his trademark full-face grin. “We got a chandelier hanging up here. Kids playing outside. It’s a beautiful neighborhood. Ain’t got nothing to worry about.”

“Getttt ouuuutttt,” a demonic voice growls, and Murphy’s face sobers.

“Too bad we can’t stay.”

In Disney’s “The Haunted Mansion,” Murphy plays the exact character he used to make fun of. He’s a workaholic dad who visits a haunted house (and doesn’t run at the first sign of danger) and learns an Important Lesson about family. Uh, he’s kidding, right? What happened to the hilarious, startlingly vulgar comic who shot to fame in the early 80s?

Twenty years ago, the idea of Murphy appearing in a Disney movie would have been laughed right out of the House of Mouse. (“Folks, I’d like to introduce you to the eighth dwarf: Sweary.”) But today, it’s a far better match. Murphy’s newly neutered image fits in nicely among Disney’s tough-but-lovable pirates, basketball-playing dogs, and computer-generated fish. And it’s our loss. Eddie had better hope he never meets his 22-year-old self, because that young comedian would probably slug today’s softer, gentler Murphy right in the teeth for taking on such a wimpy series of roles.

Sure, the movie business is cyclical. An actor will often do a few, say, action pictures in a row, then grow tired of the genre and move onto romantic comedies for a while. But Murphy’s been stuck in kiddieland for a long time: He hasn’t been in a rated R movie since 1999’s “Life.”

And Murphy’s not the only one. The former Axel Foley is the latest in a spate of formerly sharp comedians shucking their edgy material and cuddling up with family-friendly parts in comedically castrated movies. What gives?

You like me! You really like me!
A comedian’s holy grail is acceptance. Why else would somebody perform, night after night, in a smoky club? Applause, baby. Love. And now that comedians of Murphy’s ilk have found it — from the very middle-American conventional people they used to ridicule — they’ll no doubt hang onto it as long as they can. It’s comfortable. It’s lucrative. It’s now playing at a theater near you.

There’s no denying that, in our anything-goes society, there’s an unprecedented need for family-friendly entertainment. But does it have to be at the expense of letting the rest of us enjoy the adult humor of our most beloved comedians? Unless Murphy throws his longtime fans an occasional raunchy, racy bone, they may soon forget his brilliant earlier performances — and why they fell in love with him in the first place.

Murphy’s best on-screen moments were when, as bemused fish-out-of-water, he cracked that multi-million dollar smile, shook his head incredulously and laughed his famous Arnold-Horshack-meets-injured-manatee guffaw. The suddenly wealthy Billy Ray Valentine in “Trading Places,” Detroit detective Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop,” Reggie Hammond, the streetwise thorn in Nick Nolte’s side in “48 Hours”: All unforgettable characters that played to Murphy’s considerable strengths.

Today, the raw innocence and mischievous glint is long gone, and our affection and respect for Murphy faded right along with it. Instead of creating scenes destined to become classics (meeting the ambiguously-accented Serge in “Beverly Hills Cop,” getting the tour of his new mansion in “Trading Places”), Murphy delivers forgettable fare like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Showtime” and “I Spy.” Even his latest commercial successes, “Daddy Daycare” and the “Nutty Professor” and “Doctor Dolittle” movies, reek of watered-down Eddie. Harmless enough family fare, but these flicks leave audiences who remember Eddie Murphy, Version One, longing for the foul-mouthed, daring, artistically creative guy they used to know.

And now “Haunted Mansion,” the latest in a string of Disney flicks built around theme park rides. (First “The Country Bears,” then “Pirates of the Caribbean.” What’s next, “Teacup Ride: The Movie”?) Is this Murphy’s darkest hour?

Ironically, some of Murphy’s richest, most satisfying work of late has come in the form of two dimensions; his performances as animated characters — a wisecracking dragon in Disney’s “Mulan” and as a literal smartass in “Shrek” and the upcoming “Shrek 2” — have provided audiences with the most visceral reminders of the Murphy he used to be. Fast talking, unafraid to hold back, razor-sharp. Why can’t Murphy recapture that kind of magic in a live action movie — gasp — for adults?

From wild to wimpy It’s a common malady. Another Not-Ready-For-Primetime player has lost his edge to the point where you could easily roll him down the hallway. Mr. Bass-O-Matic himself, Dan Aykroyd, has slowly but surely given up all semblance of the wickedly sharp wit he nimbly displayed on “Saturday Night Live.” After a strong start in the movie biz with fan favorites “The Blues Brothers,” “Trading Places” and “Ghostbusters,” Aykroyd started his slide as early as 1987, with the release of the bland-as-lutefisk “Dragnet.” “The Couch Trip” followed, as did other missteps: “Caddyshack 2,” “My Stepmother is an Alien,” “Nothing But Trouble.” And how in the world did he get into the “We are the World” video?

In 1989, he staved off the dogs by snagging a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in “Driving Miss Daisy,” which he then followed up with a role in the Gene Hackman/Dom Deluise flick…shudder…”Loose Cannons.” Needless to say, he didn’t need to press the ol’ tuxedo for that year’s award ceremony.

“My Girl” was another career milestone, although not quite as notable as the “Miss Daisy” Oscar nod. As an eccentric undertaker (reunited with “Trading Places” costar Jamie Lee Curtis), Aykroyd officially shelved his reputation as a “wild and crazy guy” and hunkered down for a long future playing boring father figures. Oh, well. At least he got to be in a movie where Macaulay Culkin got attacked by bees.

Well, excuuuuuse them
And the list of comedians formerly known as edgy goes on. Chevy Chase. Rick Moranis. Remember silver-tongued Charles Grodin, once the funniest, most acerbic voice on the TV talk show circuit? Now he’s best known as the befuddled dad in the “Beethoven” movies, playing second fiddle to a giant St. Bernard. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

And take Steve Martin. Please. Oh, Steve. Where did your King Tut hat and arrow-through-the-head go? Martin, too, has settled into a comfortable slate of family-friendly films, as evidenced by the upcoming “Cheaper by the Dozen,” yet another remake. For fans weaned on comedy gems like “The Jerk” and “The Man with Two Brains,” Martin’s latest work often seems phoned in and empty.

Most recently, the toned-down Martin has reared his arrow-free head in schlock like “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” “Bringing Down the House,” and — remake alert — the “Father of the Bride” flicks. (Don’t get me started on “Sgt. Bilko.”) And now word that he’s taking over as bumbling Inspector Clouseau in Ivan Reitman’s prequel to “The Pink Panther.”

Safe, secure choices, all. But, guess what? Signing on to work with Reitman may actually be a step in the right direction — like his well-received stints as Oscar host — toward reclaiming some of Martin’s former respect as a comedic force of nature. Reitman is the man behind many iconic comic flicks, including “Meatballs,” “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes” — all of which starred a certain former “SNL”-er currently basking in the critics’ glow: Bill Murray.

Doing it Murray style Murray knows a thing or two about partnering with top talent, especially lately. From his quirky and understated turn as a would-be transsexual in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” to his I’m-back-baby! role as an unhappy millionaire in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” Murray suddenly found himself collecting kudos for his subtly hilarious-yet-melancholy acting style. And that steamroller kept right on going, with what is unquestionably his best-received performance to date: Bob Harris, the past-his-prime movie star in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” There’s Oscar buzz, people. So he’s got that goin’ for him. Which is nice.

Murray is following in the footsteps of another comic-turned-thespian, Robin Williams. Williams won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” in 1997, and was nominated three times more, for “The Fisher King,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” It’s been six years since a nomination, but it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. Last year, Williams turned in hard-edged performances that must have been choreographed to erase memories of his Eddie Murphy-esque descent into Patch Adams pap (“Jack,” “Hook,” “Jumanji”). It was a cinematic rebirth of sorts for Williams, with roles as an unapologetic murderer in “Insomnia,” and as a creepy stalker in “One Hour Photo.” Next up, the sci-fi thriller “The Final Cut.” Williams mixes it up, balancing his work in all-ages flicks with stuff strictly for mommy and daddy. And he’s building fans on both sides of the generation gap.

There are a few comics who continue to grow as artists, actors and comedic talents. But others — like Murphy — seem to be taking the far easier path. There’s no denying that Murphy, Martin and Aykroyd are talented performers and hit-worthy stars.

But whether they know it or not — as long as they continue to deliver watered-down performances without the edge that skyrocketed them to fame in the first place — the joke’s on them.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in St. Paul, Minn.