"Harlem Nights" (citywide) opens with something shocking for an Eddie Murphy movie: unintentional humor. In glamorous script, the credits announce that this is a Paramount presentation, in association with Eddie Murphy Productions . . . of an Eddie Murphy film, starring . . . Eddie Murphy. The old Murphy--the devilish kid who once disrupted a TV awards show by stealing Lionel Richie's Grammy--might have quashed this crushed-silk canonization with a raucous, honking laugh.
Instead, he has left the audience to do his honking while he eases himself into a stiff-waxy superstar persona as a 1930s Harlem lady-killer, club host, gambler and gunman extraordinaire named Quick.
The movie that follows--in which Quick and his mentor Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) lead a retinue of high-rollers, "hos" and hangers-on in a turf war with the mob--isn't totally barren of humor. But it's certainly barren. It's shot like a lesser '30s movie, full of empty streets, bare rooms and mostly empty and obvious movie sets. And Murphy, who also wrote and directed, keeps shuttling us between them as if his real name were Slow.
If the inspirations are obvious--"The Cotton Club" strained through "The Sting"--the execution sometimes suggests Walter Hill, on a bad day, trying to imitate Mervyn LeRoy. Against this drowsy, drab background--full of vendettas and long-winded sadism, with people crushing each others' hands, slitting throats, torching clubs and gunning each other down--all the elegance is ersatz and all the sex is mean and conniving. The actors supply the only energy, but their badinage often sounds like comics ragging each other to pad out an improvised sketch.
The movie is full of phallic gags about little-bitty guns and crude jokes at physical or emotional infirmities: Stan Shaw's bizarrely punchy heavyweight champ, Arsenio Hall's hysterical gunman who can't stop crying, and Della Reese as the rotund madam Vera, whose barrelhouse contours and posterior supply a stream of gags, especially after Quick shoots off one of her toes. Sadism mixes with sentimentality. In his only love scene, Quick shoots his partner (Jasmine Guy) and poor, waddling nine-toed Vera is later made to pathetically bawl out her love for him.
In this buddy-buddy-buddy movie--with three generations of great stand-up comics (Murphy, Pryor and Redd Foxx) together--two buddies always melt into the background. Pryor grays over into a grinning paterfamilias, popping up occasionally to give Quick a sidekick. Foxx, at first funny as a cantankerous craps croupier too blind to read the dice, turns from instigator of jokes to the butt of them. Some fine comics--like Robin Harris, great in the street chorus of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing"--are hardly used. Others, like Della Reese, are abused.
Laurence Paull's production design lacks glitter. The movie also lacks the Harlem outside the gaudy gangland environs, the poverty, filth, pain, humanity, humor and danger that feeds these mobster fantasies.
Maybe that enclosure within a world of sex, style and might at the top hints at the problem. Like many superstars, Eddie Murphy may have gotten so tangled up in the myths and myopia of high-power movie making that he can't get back to the gritty, pungent, kick-in-the-throat awareness earlier audiences loved. Since 1984, in popular mausoleum efforts like "The Golden Child," "Coming to America" or the second "Beverly Hills Cop," he's mostly stopped doing what he does best--the quick-witted, generous outsider in a recognizably corrupt urban landscape--while entombing himself in glossed-up, borrowed movie-movie images, like Harrison Ford in "The Golden Child" or some mix of Gable and Redford here.
If he's going to confine himself to bad movies like "Harlem Nights" (rated R for sex, violence and language), it's probably better that he writes and directs them himself. At least he's learning new skills. But he needs, probably, to forget that he's E*D*D*I*E M*U*R*P*H*Y. Maybe he needs a fresh young kid to run up and steal a Grammy from him.
A Paramount Pictures presentation in association with Eddie Murphy productions. Producers Robert D. Wachs, Mark Lipsky. Director/script/executive producer Murphy. Camera Woody Omens. Editor George Bowers. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Costume design Joe I. Tompkins. Music Herbie Hancock. With Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Danny Aiello, Michael Lerner, Della Reese, Stan Shaw, Jasmine Guy, Berlinda Tolbert, Vic Polizos.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (younger than 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).