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“Must Do Better”: Dramatic Talents & Wasted Potential…

There’s something very sad about Eddie Murphy. His latest movie, A Thousand Words, opened last Friday in the States with an almost impressive 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That means that there wasn’t a single reviewer who though that the movie was even “okay”, let alone “good” or “great.” It’s are to find a film that can generate such a consensus, although I don’t think anybody was especially astounded that Eddie Murphy headlined a comedy that was frustrating and disappointing. Of course, he has undoubtedly made a lot of money, and has decided that this is what he wants to do, but there’s something very frustrating about actors like Eddie Murphy, who have demonstrated uncanny ability, but seem willing to settle for generic film after generic film.

Of course, Eddie Murphy might be making the films that Eddie Murphy wants to make, and more power to him. I hope that he is enjoying his work, and doing something that he truly loves – it’s hard to begrudge anybody for earning a living. Still, as a movie fan, I do feel a slight hint of disappointment with his choices in movies. It’s not that films like Meet Dave or Norbit are terrible, because there are lots of terrible films out there. Nick Swardson’s decision to make Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star doesn’t make me feel strongly one way or the other. However, Murphy’s choices frustrate me because… well, he’s better than them.

I don’t even mean that he’s a strong dramatic actor, although I do believe he had a legitimate claim to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Dream Girls. I just mean that he’s a tremendously talented individual, and was – at one time – one of the funniest comedians working in movies. I still love Beverly Hills Cop. I like 48 Hours. I adore Bowfinger. I think that Murphy has a superbly profane wit, and he has the capacity to be downright hilarious – but that talent seems to be wasted in the films he appears in.

It reminds me of the “must do better” or “must try harder” notes that teachers would scrawl on homework, condemning those students who didn’t necessarily fail their assignments, but were underachieving. It seems, more and more, that Hollywood is filled with over-paid underachievers.

Will Smith is a wonderful dramatic actor, even if the films he appeared in weren’t spectacular, and yet he’s been associated with a list of generic blockbusters, culminating in the unnecessary Men in Black III. It’s fun to mock Adama Sandler for nonsense like Jack & Jill or Grown-Ups or Just Go With It or… well, a lot of films, but he also demonstrated wonderful depth in The Wedding Singer and Punch Drunk Love.

Jim Carrey remains one of the most frustrating of the most naturally talented actors working today. In my own estimation, I think he is genuinely a superb dramatic performer. His work in films like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is truly amazing. Even his less successful dramatic films like The Majestic still feature solid central performances. Jack Nicholson apparently once identified Jim Carrey as his spiritual successor, and I don’t think it’s a flawed argument. So it is very disappointing to see Carrey playing it relatively safe after swinging for the fences with I Love You Phillip Morris.

Nicolas Cage seems incapable of turning down any film role offered to him, even if he does manage to elevate just about any schlock he happens to appear in, pushing a given movie in a particular direction. Drive Angry wouldn’t have been as absurdly insanely fun without him, and The Wicker Man would not have been so ridiculously impossibly terribly so-bad-it’s-the-guiltiest-of-pleasures had he not been the one to shout “not the BEES!!!”

And, to be fair, it is worth noting that a lot of actors exist who do balance the cheesier and lighter pop corn flicks with films that allow them to grow and develop as actors in their own right. George Clooney seems to alternate between lighter and heavier fare perfectly, mixing crowd-pleasing generic films with more intimate and experimental films. This is a lead actor who can appear in light-to-the-touch movies like Ocean’s Eleven and counter-balance them with bolder work like The American or Solaris or Gravity. There are quite a few actors who do something similar, people like Matt Damon or Brad Pitt or Amy Adams.

It’s worth conceding though, in spite of what myself and various film fans may feel, there are lots of valid reasons why actors like Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler continue to turn out those incredibly “safe” and predictable films. Those films that I cited were all massive risks for the actors in question, and it was very rare that any of them made a substantial impression at the box office. In some cases, it’s worth noting that these more adventurous film roles were met with derision by film critics and fans. Sandler’s work in Funny People was seen as self-indulgent and gratuitous, on top of making relatively little money. Very few Will Smith fans count Seven Pounds among his best films. (Although I think is performance is still great.)

If these actors can appeal to their fans and generate large amounts of money, why would they take those sorts of risks? After all, we all recognise stars who took massive risks only to lose out in the long-term, fading from fame after making a series of risky gambits that didn’t quite pay-off. Billy Zane is instantly recognisable, and yet has been reduced to supporting roles in films like The Roommate. Eric Roberts has seen his career ebb-and-flow, unable to gain any real traction off career high-points like Runaway Train or The Dark Knight.

Murphy and Carrey and Smith are all instantly recognisable brand names, who earn large amounts of money headlining films from major studios, and still manage to attract audiences. Why would any of them jeopardise that by making any more risky moves? Why rock the boat?

I can’t answer that and, as noted above, I can’t really blame them for failing to try. Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed and somewhat dejected, if only because they’ve teased us with what they are capable of, and it feels more than a bit cynical to revert back to conventional and forgettable films after showing such incredible promise.

4 Responses

  1. It’s understandable for actors to extend their wings with difficult roles, mostly in underseen films, and then fall back upon the safe films that pay the bills. For years, Clint Eastwood alternated between run-of-the-mill cop films and his more serious fare before being able to focus strictly on making those films he feels strongly about. What’s irritating about Eddie Murphy is that when he proved himself a strong dramatic actor in “Dreamgirls” and garnered that Oscar nom, he did nothing else to continue on that career path. His role in “Tower Heist” reminded people of his comedic skills and created nostalgia for the Murphy of days gone by. The only saving grace with “A Thousand Words” is that it has been sitting on the shelf since 2008…though that was still two years after “Dreamgirls.”

    • I only discovered that it had been sitting on the shelf recently. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. What is interesting though, is that A Thousand Words actually has an interesting high concept (at least I think), and something that could have possibly worked under different circumstances. Of course, any concept could work under the right circumstances.

      • What it says is that the studio thought it was horrible and only hoped it would make a little bit of money by cashing in on Eddie Murphy’s slight rise in public awareness due to “Tower Heist” and the Oscars (which he ended up not hosting).

      • I think that just makes it a little bit sadder. To look back at the stuff Eddie Murphy used to make and then to see that his current movies are released like toxic waste, rather than like something the distributor’s eager to release.

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