The flameout of a movie star is never a pretty sight, but there was something especially ignominious about the decline and fall of Eddie Murphy. Arguably the greatest performer ever to emerge from Saturday Night Live, he connected with audiences in the way that Richard Pryor and Woody Allen had; he made you feel as if your entire skeleton were made of funny bones. Then, virtually overnight, he imploded as a comedian. The slapdash awfulness of some of his movies (remember The Golden Child?) was insulting, as if he were saying, ''See, I'm such a big star I can do anything and you'll line up for it!'' The real downshift came with Beverly Hills Cop II, a hunk of Simpson-Bruckheimer noise in which Murphy, playing Axel Foley as a glowering supercop sadist, virtually declared his lack of interest in making audiences laugh. He began to perform as if he wanted us to love him simply for being Eddie Murphy. His arrogance mutated into a contempt for comedy, for entertainment, for stardom itself. By the time the '90s rolled around, he had turned into a steroid parody of himself: hard and imperious where he'd once been light and supple. He'd become an abstraction of celebrity ego without joy, the strutting King of Nothing. Before long, we forgot he'd ever sat on a throne.
So it's only fitting, perhaps, that Eddie Murphy returns to show business that is, to being a true entertainer a humbled man, and, what's more, that this new modesty becomes the very source of his comedy. In The Nutty Professor, a canny and exuberant update of the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy, Murphy appears as seven different characters, but mostly he plays Sherman Klump, a hugely fat chemistry professor who longs to escape his load of misery. The makeup artist Rick Baker has given Murphy pouchy cheeks, a drooping double chin, and the body of a hippopotamus. Though I'm not quite sure how he brought it off, the effect is so convincing that Murphy effectively disappears inside that mountain of fake flesh. Sherman wears a bow tie, a domesticated Afro, and a smile of decorous politeness; he seems to be apologizing for his very existence. His obesity is so overstated, so ridiculous, so there, that Murphy's slyly witty performance can afford not to be ridiculous. Speaking in the courtly soft tones of a Southern gentleman, he makes Sherman as lithe and unobtrusive in soul as he is heavy in body. Sherman would have been a fussbudget nerd even back in the '70s, and, in a sense, he's still stuck in the post-civil rights era. A beneficent intelligence shines through Murphy's liquid eyes, and he gives Sherman a secret funky side. The moment Miss Purty (Jada Pinkett), a sexy new professor, wanders into his classroom to introduce herself, it's clear that Sherman is comfortable with his libido; he just keeps it under wraps. At night, he goes home and sings along with his Teddy Pendergrass CDs, and his bull-in-the-china-shop dance moves are hilarious and touching.
More than just a walking fat joke, Sherman Klump is Eddie Murphy's winking rebuke of his own arrogance. The character's blackness is central to the satire: He represents a gleeful subversion of African-American machismo the blimp as ultimate unhipster. Out on a date with Miss Purty, Sherman is ridiculed by an obnoxious nightclub comic (Dave Chappelle, in an electric performance), and we share in his humiliation. But then he gets revenge. Using himself as a guinea pig in a mad scientist experiment, he drinks a blue potion and emerges, newly svelte, as Buddy Love (i.e., Eddie Murphy sans makeup), badass lady-killer. The scene in which Sherman-as-Buddy returns to the nightclub for a duel with the comic is a tour de force of invective. As the movie goes on, we realize that Buddy, with his mile-wide grins, his pimp suits, his dismaying eagerness for everyone to share in the pleasure of what a sexed-up pig he is, is Murphy's hyperbolic act of self-mockery.
In the original Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis' Buddy Love a blend of Dean Martin and his own dark side was almost blasphemous in his arrogance. Murphy plays Buddy as an amusing projection of the ego Sherman is suppressing, but in a strange way his Murphyish riffs are too familiar to shock us into laughter (as Lewis did). Then again, the new movie is more than a Jekyll-and-Hyde farce. In addition to Sherman and Buddy, Murphy plays four members of Sherman's fat, cantankerous family, and in doing so he turns The Nutty Professor into a gloriously rowdy African-American burlesque. The characters around the dinner table range from a proudly flatulent father to a devious obscene grandma, and every one of them will have audiences howling; you can feel Murphy rediscovering his joy as a performer. He rediscovers it, too, as Sherman Klump, a fellow who, much like Murphy, is on the bottom rung, desperate to reinvent himself, and at long last does. B+