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Eddie Murphy is dead. Long live Eddie Murphy. In his latest movie, the erst-while superstar delivers a captivating, many-sided performance that ironically succeeds most when Murphy exaggerates and demonizes the very character that launched him to stardom--the brash, vulgar fast-talker able to one-up anyone. But returning constantly to the lower end of the roller coaster -- bathroom humor and insipid romance -- the movie acquires a wearying, frustrating rhythm of unbearable idiocy alternating with high-quality hilarity.
The outlines of "The Nutty Professor" go back to our old pal(s) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and, more specifically, the Jerry Lewis classic by the same name. In this version, however, the professor, Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy, thanks to seamless makeup) consumes a formula that cures both the excessive frumpiness and (in a twist on the original film) lumpiness that he believes might hamper his success with an attractive young grad student (Jada Pinkett). The new Klump, under the alias Buddy Love, proves devious and reckless in his pursuits, threatening the research money sought so assiduously by the unctuously psychotic dean at Klump's university (Larry Miller).
Klump's new identity consists of a smaller waistline and an enormous ego--in truth, a highly concentrated version of early Eddie Murphy himself. Klump/Love is literally a pivotal role for Murphy. At one moment, he is playing Sherman Klump as a full and sympathetic character, a performance where others might have relied on the novelty of girth. A splitsecond later he turns around and goes back to his old tricks until they self-destruct. The now-tired, brazen "Beverly Hills Cop"-type character of old--outrageous and obnoxious arrogance, hilarious, often vulgar one-liners--is exaggerated and mocked in the form of the unrepentant, vaguely evil Buddy Love.
Unfortunately, if Murphy makes a statement here by destroying his own character before our eyes and demonstrating other abilities through Klump, he isn't helped by the generally low-grade comedy that pervades much of the film. Boring flatulence jokes gradually steam roll over the otherwise superbly sick Klump family portrait (a lewd grandmother talking forever of "relations"; Sherman's babying mother who believes a baby's first step unimportant compared to his first roof-rumbling belch). Soon Klump's post-transformation celebration turns idiotic and offensive; it's as if "Eddie Murphy Raw" took over and started telling stand-up jokes about women's exercise.
Ironically, one of the finest parts of the film involves Murphy attacking a mean stand-up comedian. Buddy Love returns with his date to the Def Comedy Jamtype comic (Dave Chapelle) who before had made public mockery of him as Sherman Klump. Turning heckler, Buddy begins by sarcastically praising the comic for his ability to pick out and pick on people for their weaknesses. Thereafter, things turn ugly for the poor guy: in a sequence owing a lot to Steve Martin's nose-joke routine in a bar in "Roxanne," Buddy proceeds to roast the comic to a crisp. Where Klump had received abuse -- "Now we know what's eating Gilbert Grape!"--Buddy dishes it out, worse than the comic himself could do. (But Chapelle captures the strutting, merciless vulgarity and one-up-manship of many such comics perfectly, only breaking character in that he is actually occasionally funny.)
Ultimately, the movie only follows well-worn paths, trotting out a revelation-of-main-character's-big-secret scene, the shock-of-love-interest-at-betrayal/breathless-reconciliations scene, even a sappy speech about identity that Al Franken's Stuart Smalley could have written. After the vicious stand-up comic scene and another superbly funny nightmare sequence (again, alas, tainted with a gaseous joke or two), the movie simply gets tiresome. It's as if the movie's taking a collective funny potion now and then, having enormously concentrated effects, and then abating, painfully. Even Murphy's Buddy Love fizzles toward the end.
Despite the weakness of "Professor" as a whole, it is impressive to see Murphy destroy a stand-up comic and, in the process, stretch his own comic persona's self-assuredness to the breaking point. Yet his efforts are lost in all this material This, perhaps, is the essential failure of "The Nutty Professor"--low comedy and boring plotting weigh down the film's potential.
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