Life Shows Eddie Murphy’s Underused Dramatic Chops

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Film audiences in 1999 had the chance to see another side of Eddie Murphy. While he was the guarantor of comedy hits throughout the 80s and 90s, Murphy gave audiences only a glimpse of his versatile talents as a one-of-a-kind movie star. His career featured recurring minor ebbs and flows, and coming out of The mad professor in 1996, he was in the midst of a super-stardom resurgence. Vie should have been the ultimate summary of his remarkable career, but instead this dramedy about a pair of wrongfully convicted friends who bond over a life sentence in prison arrived without much fanfare. A lackluster box office return and mixed reviews knocked this film out of Ted Demme come and go, but a retrospective examination of Murphy’s star vehicle shines a light on his untapped potential as a dramatic actor and shows a window into the kind of projects he might have taken on more often in his later years.

Eddie Murphy’s partnership with Martin Lawrence benefits his performance

Image via Universal Pictures

A look that makes Vie What sets Eddie Murphy’s filmography apart is that it’s not an “Eddie Murphy movie” in the traditional sense. When he plays in a film, it’s ses film. For example, Flic de Beverly Hills was only completed on the back of him improvising his way through his messy script. The main theatrical release poster Vie presents it as an “Eddie & Martin” image. Murphy co-star Martin Laurent is really a double track with him. Lining up with a suitable co-lead in a movie was a smart move. The star has so much natural chemistry with everyone onscreen with him, including additional characters who are also played by Murphy (Coming to America et The mad professor), that a talent nearly equal to Lawrence can unleash his hidden acting potential and take the comedic weight off his shoulders. Perhaps due to the film’s slight failure, but Murphy and Lawrence never became a long and fruitful screen partnership like Gene Wilder et Richard Prior. In another universe, Vie could have served as a launching pad for the pair to jump from various high concept settings.

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Murphy’s film that best reflects Vie is his only achievement in 1989, Harlem Nights, as it’s a slightly fancier period piece and a partnership with another lead, this time Murphy idol Richard Pryor. Where they differ is in the critical reaction department. The reviews of Vie were extremely positive about the panning that Harlem Nights has received. The bulk of the film’s problems are Murphy’s inability to direct – a reality he himself has admitted to, while saying the experience soured him on being at the helm of the director’s chair again. When he can only focus on bringing his usual charm and versatility to the screen, Vie is Murphy’s good result in a period context. Playing Ray Gibson, a petty thief in New York City, Murphy fits right in with the Prohibition-era speakeasy setting. The film’s two main settings, the nightclub scene and rural Mississippi where Ray and Claude (Lawrence) are framed for murder by a racist sheriff and sentenced to life in prison, present Murphy as timeless, with his energy and his timeless charisma. This is the trait that all major movie stars are looking for.

‘Life’ tonal flexibility demonstrates Murphy’s versatility

Vie has a tonal looseness that soothes Murphy’s abilities as a performer. Demme’s film is not rigidly definable as comedy or drama. While some may argue that the film’s imbalance detracts from its overall quality, it unquestionably allows Murphy a great deal of creative freedom with his performance. He shows a level of restraint in the comedic and dramatic spectrums of his performance that audiences aren’t always sure what he’s going to deliver at any given moment. More than any other of his characters, Ray is portrayed as a fully fleshed out person, and is indicative of the film’s title: Demonstrative of Long Life. The old-age makeup and prosthetic work on Murphy and Lawrence in their senior years in prison is quite exceptional, so much so that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup. The effect wouldn’t work without a nuanced portrayal of an elderly man that Murphy gives the film, subverting the expectation of a cartoonish projection.

In many ways, Vie is a great act of reversing public expectations. The aforementioned theatrical release poster suggests the film is Eddie Murphy’s next straight comedy, with the title text and font looking awfully similar to 2007’s. Norbit. What appears to be a fish-out-of-water comedy on the outside actually unfolds as a naturalistic evolution in the lives of two inadvertent friends who have been caught up in bad circumstances. Although seemingly stereotypical in one minute, the film will hit viewers with a shocking dramatic sequence, such as the suicide of an inmate who fears life outside the prison walls, and the confrontation between Ray and the sheriff who charged him decades into his sentence. The film’s most damning weakness is its inability to fully evoke these moments of dramatic tension. They are usually said rather than shown. Despite his emotional shortcomings, Murphy is compelling in these dramatic sequences while remaining true to himself. It never comes across as desperate for seriousness or an Oscar clip.

Eddie Murphy’s Untapped Potential Seen in ‘Life’

Following the release of Vie, Murphy occasionally employed his untapped dramatic chops. His acclaimed performance in 2006 dream girls won many awards, but came close to winning that coveted Oscar, and Dolemite is my name from 2019 was a great application of this particular untapped ability. Ideally, as he got older, Murphy would push his dramatic acting abilities and seek bolder and more interesting projects, but instead he was committed to bringing out family entertainment, including the Shrek franchise. The last century for Murphy has been a dilemma, between unrealized projects stuck in development hell and a falling out with Saturday Night Live.

In his heyday, there were few entertainment stars, let alone Hollywood, who were as popular and beloved as he was. However, Vie shows that he may have left on the table a triumphant second act to his career as a legitimate dramatic actor. Either way, the 1999 film, which has thankfully developed a small cult following since its release, showcases Eddie Murphy’s natural talent and on-screen presence in a way viewers have rarely been able to. to see.

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