Decades ago, Eddie Murphy’s successful standup act earned him a Grammy for “Comedian” (culled from “Delirious,” a smash special endlessly rerun on HBO and a huge video hit), and prompted high hopes for his film “Raw.” Hollywood’s wonder boy was in the midst of his glory years. Vaulting from the early-1980s sludge of “Saturday Night Live” to the big screen, his transition to film was virtually flawless. Streetwise roles in Walter Hill’s “48 Hours” and Martin Brest’s “Beverly Hills Cop” made him a star on an unprecedented scale. His “Party All The Time” single spent three weeks at #2 on the Billboard Top 40 and he even hosted the first two Video Music Awards shows for MTV. Everywhere was where Eddie Murphy seemed to be. Good times don’t always last, however. Murphy would soon retreat from fame, fans and the public eye, preferring instead to stay within a close-knit circle of family and friends. It is this growing detachment that wraps around “Raw,” recently released on DVD by Paramount Pictures.
A half-hearted childhood sequence (look for Samuel L. Jackson as Eddie’s uncle) co-written by Keenan Ivory Wayans is first. Seconds later, the kid’s an adult and a star, waltzing out of a limo into the Felt Forum in a purple leather suit complete with leather gloves, a gold chain and a shiny watch. Murphy at once looks like another jaded Hollywood celeb surrounded by bodyguards, and a powerful, sexually explicit strutting male animal at that. Picture this dude walking in the door with your sister, daughter or mother. Despite such aloof Eighties duds, he manages to draw people in with his spot-on vivid characterizations of his subjects’ voice and movements. He just has to try harder with that outfit on, especially when “Raw” falters during a meandering 40-minute stretch on relationships. This endless diatribe, a blatant attempt to forge new ground and not repeat previous work, fails and takes up half the movie. Even with a microphone cord that becomes a swinging penis and a bush bitch, it is awful. It’s so painful to watch, Howard Stern would exhort Murphy to stop.
Illustrating the finer points of celebrity dating perils, lawsuits stemming from nightclub fights or what gets someone on the front cover of The Enquirer won’t forge any bonds with an audience. Regardless, that Eddie sure is funny. Even a camera operator is caught busting a gut. Murphy succeeds when he talks about things the audience can identify with more. Whether this is via familiar impersonations of Mr. T, Michael Jackson, homosexuals and his parents or new expert mimicry of Bob Marley, Otis Redding and Cosby, fine. Murphy can discharge an arsenal of ethnic voices so fast and so well that he quickly embodies his topic. The segment about Italians’ turbocharged actions after watching “Rocky” is a riot (“He’s 6’5”, I’m 5’2” – watch this.”). Eddie transitions his Brooklyn upbringing into his act again – the description of the meatball his mother makes to compete with McDonald’s is right there with the ice cream routine in “Delirious.” Want a great new drinking game? Take a swig every time he curses. You’ll be bombed in minutes.
“Raw” looks it on DVD. The print used for the transfer is not the best, not by a long shot. Robert Townsend’s direction is shaky, but yours would be too if you had to follow Murphy around a stage. Extras are nonexistent, a continuing trend for Paramount releases. What you see is what you get with “Raw,” a vulgar and uncut look at arguably the best standup performer of the 1980s. Although “Raw” debuted at #1 at the box office during the holiday season and would go on to become the highest-grossing film of its genre, it would be the third straight Murphy effort to make lots of dough and get critically panned. “Coming To America” was a welcome surprise in summer 1988, but after a relentless box office attack, Murphy backed off. He made two multiplex appearances over the next four years: “Harlem Nights,” which made good on his goal to write, direct and star in the same film but essentially surrounded him with idols Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor and not much else, and a lackluster sequel to “48 Hours.” The romantic misfire “Boomerang” and Capra-esque “The Distinguished Gentleman” marked his return in 1992 but for the next few years Murphy made several errors in judgment. A third “Beverly Hills Cop” installment bombed and “Vampire In Brooklyn” could be smelled miles away. Hitting bottom, why wouldn’t he start acting in ‘60s remakes of the family oriented “The Nutty Professor” and “Doctor Doolittle”? By then, no one wanted to see him do standup anymore. As far as “Raw” goes, Murphy is there but not on fire. It’s stormy weather before a dead calm.