The Friends of Eddie Murphy

Of all the clones, Chris Rock claims a legitimate Murphy pedigree. A public protégé of Murphy's as a stand-up in the late 1980s, Rock joined Murphy's former television show in 1990. On SNL, Rock played the kind of angry character identified with Murphy's stint on the show. The parallels were obvious, but since leaving the show in '93, Rock has proved a disappoinment in Murphy-like film roles offered him. With his distinctive voice and affected mannerisms, Rock never manages to inhabit the outsider roles Murphy plunged into. At times, Rock seems like a character dropped from a Rat Pack-style film of knowing celebrity dress-up. Ironically, Rock has become an exceedingly effective stand-up comedian and talk show host — surpassing Murphy in the weakest aspect of his show biz portfolio that doesn't involve Rick James — by mining the same sense of personal displacement and barely-concealed anger Murphy used to build his film persona.

Damon Wayans probably suffered the most by playing the sort of role associated with Murphy. Wayans broke out on television in 1990 on In Living Color by playing absurdist variations on black anger, like Homey the Clown, that seemed effective updates on Murphy's sketchwork. Cast into a number of Murphy-style films, Wayans's early work seems now more like self-immolation than career-building. Wayans lacked Murphy's balance. He seemed oddly overearnest in Murphy-style action comedies like The Last Boy Scout and Bulletproof. And when it came to submerging himself into odd characters more suited to sketch work, Wayans unwisely chose to build films around them. In terms of the integrity he brings to the performances, Wayans is awe-inspiring in films like Blankman and Major Payne; both movies are almost unwatchable. Wayans may be too curious a talent to play Murphy-style roles; unfortunately, those seem to be the only kinds of roles regularly offered to young, black comedic actors.

Chris Tucker is perhaps the most recognized Murphy clone of the last five years. Two of his films are classics of the form, seemingly written in a long weekend after a videotape raid of the Murphy shelf at Blockbuster: 1997's Money Talks and 1998's buddy cop hit Rush Hour. But the key Tucker-as-Murphy moment came as interstellar DJ Ruby Rhod in Luc Besson's pretty, stupid, pretty stupid sci-fi flick The Fifth Element. Trapped in a celluloid world where ex-wrestler Tiny Lister is President and disco opera is a revered art form, the audience suffers through multiple quick-talking monologues from Tucker as a broadcast media celebrity. But get past Tucker's distinctive bleat of a voice, and his monologues are remarkably unclever and sloppily delivered. One must assume Luc Besson's basic unfamiliarity with the English language ` and trust in the Murphy-style role — led to their place of pride in the final movie.

Starting with that role, Tucker has become known as a sort of highly-refined Murphy-movie specialist, concentrating in the kind of verbal gymnastics that marked key scenes in Murphy's earlier films. Tucker is a talker in Murphy's league only in the sense Yngwie Malmsteen is the world's greatest guitarist.

Finally, there's Martin Lawrence: Murphy peer, Murphy clone. Lawrence's recent star vehicle Big Momma's House raked in a Murphy-like $25.7 million in its opening weekend. Like the cops and thieves comedy Blue Streak before it, Big Momma's House is an Eddie Murphy movie all the way, asking the audience both to believe Lawrence as a top law enforcement officer and to enjoy him playing extended shtick as a hugely overweight woman. You can understand Lawrence's work in Blue Streak and Big Momma's House by watching the bizarrely sentimental prison comedy Life, in which he and Murphy starred. Lawrence simply lacks Murphy's performance skills across the board. When a part calls for clever verbal manipulation, Lawrence provides faces, tics and guttural noises. If a part calls for Lawrence to play another character, the audience is guaranteed extremely broad caricature and constant reminders he's playing a part. While there may be a part specifically suited to what he can do, watching Martin Lawrence play roles suited for Eddie Murphy is like catching Frank Sinatra Jr. at the Sands.

In certain ways, Martin Lawrence may be the ultimate Murphy clone. His entire career seems to be a goof on Murphy's own: a performer who seemingly gets rewarded for attempting to play parts suited for an actor who built that fan base by trying and succeeding. Introducing knock-offs into a marketplace eventually becomes a struggle to find the cheapest copy amenable to the target audience. Between Tucker and Lawrence, Hollywood may have found a double-bill guaranteed to open huge and fade quickly for the next ten years. You can measure Eddie Murphy's influence in terms of the reputations made in his wake or the careers he touched adversely. You just can't measure it in laughs.

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40th Street Black

Terry Colon