Sun-baked summer audiences may have a pleasant time at Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor.” Would-be therapists are going to have a field day.
In the original take-off on the Jekyll-and-Hyde story, Jerry Lewis took a potion that liberated his dark side - a slick singer who bore an astonishing resemblance to Dean Martin. In the new remake, a hugely padded Murphy juggles his own DNA and unleashes his worst self, a slim, fast-talking operator who looks a lot like - well, a lot like the old Eddie Murphy.
It’s a fascinating concept. As the 400-pound Sherman Klump, head of a small college’s chemistry department, Murphy is everything his critics always faulted him for not being - modest, restrained, sensitive, even courtly. As his alter ego Buddy Love, he’s all that his fans first loved - loud, insulting and full of such sexual swagger you’d swear he had a secret tape of “Super Freak” playing in his head.
It’s been a while since that Murphy persona clicked with audiences, however. So although “The Nutty Professor” resurrects it, it also cannily distances itself. It gives us the raunchy, rude Murphy that we used to like; at the same time, it gives us a different, gentler Murphy it suspects we now prefer. As a career move, it’s clever.
As a movie, though, it’s just mildly successful. “The Nutty Professor” works only moderately well as a comedy; as a romance, it’s even less satisfying. Jada Pinkett, who plays the love interest of both sides of Murphy’s character, can’t seem to strike on-screen sparks with either.
You can blame most of those failings on the movie’s director, Tom Shadyac, and co-screenwriter Steve Oedekerk, both of whom have worked with Jim Carrey before and seem to think they’re working with him here. This is the world according to 11-year-old boys: Flatulence is funny. Principals are dorks. Girls have breasts, and sometimes get mad at you for no reason.
Murphy, however, is wonderful throughout. There’s a gentleness here that we haven’t seen since “Coming to America,” a vulnerability we’ve never really seen from him at all.
His Sherman is a transformation, completely apart from Rick Baker’s prosthetic chins and yards of waist. He’s a different person. And just to prove it, every so often Murphy changes back to his old self, his braying laugh shaking the walls, his insults faster than machine guns.
But too many scenes are about nothing but rodent droppings and intestinal gas; too many others are about nothing at all.
“The Nutty Professor” could have used a lot more jokes, and a brighter romance at its heart. But then, this wasn’t strictly conceived as a comedy or a romance. It was made to be a breakthrough, and a comeback. And on that level, it works.
It just leaves a question: Now that Murphy is back, what is he going to do next?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Nutty Professor” Locations: North Division, East Sprague and Showboat cinemas. Credits: Directed by Tom Shadyac; starring Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett and Dave Chapelle Running time: 1:35 Rating: PG-13