Who woulda thunk it?: Eddie Murphy can still be one funny guy.
Or, in the case of "The Nutty Professor," seven funny guys.
It's true. After a string of movies that left plenty of folks wondering if he hadn't left his sense of humor behind somewhere, "Professor" may be his best film yet. It's certainly his funniest since "Beverly Hills Cop."
Why? Maybe because it contains Murphy's most restrained performance, one that requires him to contain the foul-mouthed, insufferably smug persona he's resorted to so often. Which is strange, since in many ways, "Professor" is Murphy's most self-indulgent work: he plays seven different roles, he's rarely off-screen and none of the other actors is given much of a chance to register with the audience.
But in the character of Sherman Klump, a 400-pound college chemistry professor who believes he'd be a better person if only there were two-thirds less of him, Murphy has come up with his most appealing role. Klump is shy, quietly endearing and utterly without pretense -- things Eddie Murphy has decidedly never been, at least not on-screen.
As Klump, Murphy is acting, not merely re-acting, and he's a joy to behold. The true test of his performance: it makes you forget Rick Baker's amazing prosthetic make-up job, in itself a marvel.
The story, a remake of Jerry Lewis' 1963 hit, has Professor Klump engaged in research aimed at discovering a way to lose weight by reconstituting one's DNA.
Klump is the college professor everyone loved having -- brilliant, good-hearted, approachable, maybe a little scatter-brained, but always trying to do the right thing. He also weighs two-tenths of a ton, which makes him the butt of jokes, the fall guy for an incompetent administrator and -- in his own mind, at least -- incapable of finding real happiness.
Which is why he has no idea what to do when it walks through his classroom door one day and finds him, in the person of a beautiful new faculty member (Baltimore's own Jada Pinkett). Klump, of course, is absolutely giddy when she agrees to go out with him.
But after a disastrous night out at a comedy club, during which he is subjected to just about every fat joke possible by an amazingly obnoxious insult-comic (Dave Chappelle), Klump decides that drastic measures need to be taken.
So he drinks his potion, drops his pounds and everything charming about his personality, and turns into Buddy Love. Buddy is loud, cocky and abrasive. But most important, Buddy's thin.
He's also the closest character to the traditional Eddie Murphy role in the film, and the least appealing. Thank goodness Murphy and screenwriters David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, Tom Shadyac (who also directs) and Steve Oedekerk have the sense to keep Buddy's screen time to a minimum.
This being an Eddie Murphy film, of course, there's really nothing subtle about it.
As Buddy, he gets to spew all sorts of profanities (though not enough to jeopardize the film's PG-13 rating). And the dinner scenes showing Klump's family, with Murphy playing all but one of the members, include more references to passing wind than any film short of "Twister."
Then there's the matter of all the fat jokes -- and I mean all the fat jokes; it's hard to imagine any have been left out. There's Klump being unable to fit into a chair, Klump lifting candy bars while the other guys in the gym lift weights, Buddy exulting because, slimmed down, he can see parts of his body he'd never seen before.
Sure, the film is a plea for tolerance, a condemnation of those who judge others based on what they see, not what they feel. And sure, that insult comedian gets his comeuppance -- a withering verbal attack from the equally bombastic Buddy that alone is worth the price of admission.
But is all that enough to justify the use of so much demeaning humor? I imagine that's a question of personal taste: The audience I was in laughed as hard at the fat jokes as anything else in the movie.
Still, "The Nutty Professor" is a very funny film. And in Sherman Klump, Eddie Murphy has accomplished a first for him, putting on-screen a character with a good heart, utterly unaffected by pretense or affectation. He's a winner, and so is this film.
Starring Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy and Jada Pinkett
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Released by Universal
Rated PG-13 (language)
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 6/28/96