Total Recall: Eddie Murphy's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed films from the Imagine That star.
Eddie Murphy has been a fixture on our screens since the early 1980s, when his brief tenure as a Saturday Night Live cast member helped keep the series afloat during some of its darkest years -- and prevented us from looking at Gumby, Buckwheat, James Brown, or Mister Rogers the same way ever again. It would be perhaps excessively polite to say that his critical track record over the last 20 years has been spotty, but in spite of the Meet Dave's and Vampire in Brooklyn's dotting his resume, Murphy has helped pull in over $3 billion in box office receipts -- and since his latest effort, Imagine That, is reaching theaters this Friday, we thought now would be the perfect time to devote a Total Recall to his 10 best-reviewed movies.
As with many of our Total Recall subjects, there are certain films that you just know will be on the list (hello, Beverly Hills Cop) and ones that obviously won't (The Adventures of Pluto Nash did not make the cut). But portions of the list may still surprise you; if there's one thing we've come to expect from this series, it's a healthy level of disagreement over what got bumped, what didn't, and how the rankings broke down. So let's start the countdown -- and when we're done, head over to Murphy's complete filmography for a more in-depth look at where he's been!
He'd missed the mark a couple of times -- 1986's The Golden Child didn't live up to expectations, and 1984's Best Defense was described by the New York Times' Vincent Canby as "mind-bendingly bad" -- but on the whole, Eddie Murphy's film career seemed pretty much unstoppable by 1988; the idea that his hot streak was about to end would have seemed ludicrous. As we all know, Coming to America was followed by a back-to-back pair of infamous duds in Harlem Nights and Another 48 Hrs., making the prince-out-of-water comedy the unofficial end of Murphy's early rise at the box office -- but if it had to end, at least he ended it in style, turning in the first of what would become many prosthetics-assisted multi-role performances in a hit reunion with his Trading Places director, John Landis. In the words of critic Mark R. Leeper, Coming to America is "to date the high-water mark for Landis's directorial career, and it is the best film Eddie Murphy has ever been in."
By 1996, Eddie Murphy hadn't had a box office hit since Boomerang in 1992 -- and had tumbled through a string of duds stretching back to 1989, one which included Another 48 Hrs., The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn. It was a good time for a comeback, in other words -- and Murphy found just the right vehicle in the Tom Shadyac-directed remake of Jerry Lewis' 1963 comedy about a schlub whose miracle serum transforms him into a fast-talking cretin named Buddy Love. Blending family-friendly (albeit heavily scatological) humor with a script that allowed Murphy to don a dizzying series of prosthetics and display his impressive range, The Nutty Professor gobbled up over $125 million in worldwide receipts and earned a healthy number of positive reviews from critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote that "Murphy outdoes himself by bringing pathos as well as sweetness to the character, arguably making him a viable update of Lewis's bucktoothed Julius Kelp."
A decade after sparking a comeback with The Nutty Professor, Murphy found his career back in the doldrums again; his voiceover work in the Shrek films notwithstanding, Murphy's post-Professor years were a wasteland of critical and commercial duds like Metro, Showtime, and the infamous The Adventures of Pluto Nash, with brief breaks for the mildly successful Bowfinger and a Doctor Dolittle remake that duplicated the PG humor (and box office success) of The Nutty Professor. Not much to suggest that Murphy was still interested in actual acting, in other words -- which is one reason critics were so pleasantly surprised by his Academy Award-nominated turn as James "Thunder" Early in Tom Condon's adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Though Murphy wasn't the star of the show -- and his castmate Jennifer Hudson matched his Golden Globe with one of her own, plus an Oscar -- it proved he still had the talent that made him famous. (He then turned right around and made Norbit, of course, but that's another story.)
If it had come together a decade sooner, 1999's Eddie Murphy/Steve Martin summit Bowfinger might have been a collaboration of epic proportions; as it was, neither Martin nor Murphy were exactly flush with cinematic goodwill in '99, with memories of would-be comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Holy Man still fresh in filmgoers' minds. Which is sort of a shame, because the Martin-penned Bowfinger ended up being one of the sharper and more entertaining Hollywood satires to reach theaters in years, sending up the town, the studio system, and -- though Martin has denied it -- the church of Scientology. Acting in dual roles as the world-famous, insanely paranoid Kit Ramsey and his milquetoast, talent-deficient twin brother Jiff, Murphy was able to poke fun at his own insulated image while flexing more of the multiple-role muscle audiences enjoyed with The Nutty Professor -- minus the mounds of latex, of course. Bowfinger turned a solid profit at the box office, and at 79 percent on the Tomatometer, it was Murphy's highest-rated live-action effort in years -- something noticed by USA Today's Mike Clark, who wrote, "aside from The Nutty Professor, this is the funniest Eddie Murphy comedy since the Reagan administration."
Murphy's first stand-up concert film, 1983's Delirious, is an acknowledged comedy classic -- but it was also a low-budget affair, filmed for the nascent HBO during the early years of Murphy's career. Four years later, money was no longer a problem for any Eddie Murphy production, and he returned to the concert arena, with director Robert Townsend in tow, for 1987's Raw. Mixing riffs on his life as one of Hollywood's biggest stars (including a famous bit about Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, a Coke, and a smile) with typically profane observations on race relations and marriage. Few critics tried to argue that Raw was as funny as Delirious -- and Murphy himself seemed to know he was standing in its shadow, as he referenced a number of the earlier film's bits in his Raw routine -- but he was still near the top of his game. As Richard Harrington of the Washington Post wrote, "[Murphy's] material, which trades on racial and sexual stereotypes even as it skewers them, may be offensive to some, but for others he remains a hell of a good yuck."