Saturday, July 11, 2009
THE DVD ZOMBIE: IT WATCHES "HARLEM NIGHTS"
I think you can learn the most about any actor by watching their "pet projects", those films over which they had the most creative control and which they were the most instrumental in bringing to the screen. Bruce Willis showed the world what makes him laugh in 1991's Hudson Hawk...which taught us that if Bruce Willis is laughing, most people apparently aren't (present company excluded, by the way; I think that film is hilarious). Religious faith inspired both Mel Gibson's sublime The Passion of the Christ, one of the few films to ever make me cry, and John Travolta's ridiculous Battlefield Earth, which almost makes me weep for totally different reasons. Eddie Murphy's name appears five times in the opening credits of 1989's Harlem Nights; he is listed as star, writer, director and executive producer, and the film is presented "In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions". Apart from the collected works of Robert Rodriguez, it would be hard to find a film that can be more squarely laid at the feet of one filmmaker than this one. So, what does Harlem Nights say about the man who, at the time of its making, was the biggest movie star in Hollywood? What does Eddie Murphy get when he gets whatever he wants?
Well, he gets a watchable but frustrating period crime comedy, a film as intriguing for the missed opportunities it represents as for what is actually on the screen. Set in 1938 New York, the film stars Murphy as Quick, a handsome, smooth-talking sharpster who runs the hottest casino in Harlem alongside his adopted father, the estimable old crook known as Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor). Their club is the most profitable in town, which attracts the ire of crime boss Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner), who can't abide that his business is being cut into by a couple of slick black men who don't know their place. With the help of a corrupt police sergeant (Danny Aiello) and his sexy Creole mistress, Dominique LaRue (Jasmine Guy), Calhoune sets out to drive Quick and Sugar Ray out of town. But the rulers of Harlem aren't ready to abdicate their throne without a fight, and they devise a plan to steal the proceeds from a major heavyweight title fight out from under Calhoune's nose with the aid of a hooker named Sunshine (Lela Rochon), a near-blind crouper played by Redd Foxx, and a foul-mouthed hard-brawling madame portrayed by Della Reese in a role that's like the roaring, razor-swinging evil twin of her celestial guardian on Touched by an Angel.
Story-wise, this is basically The Sting Lite. It's pretty clear that Murphy's main intention here was not to spin a compelling and intricate crime narrative. We don't really care about the details of the scam; all we know and need to know is that Murphy, Pryor and their team are the good guys, and Lerner and his men are the bad guys. So what is Murphy's main intention here? Once one starts to dig deeper into Harlem Nights, it becomes clear that Murphy himself may not have answered that question before the cameras rolled. He said in an interview that he made the film because he always wanted to act in and direct a period piece, but the production's evocation of its era is cursory at best. While the actors look glorious in Joe I. Tompkins' sumptuous costumes (Tompkins received the film's only Oscar nomination), the production design by Lawrence G. Paull never looks truly authentic; it's obvious we're always looking at sets and soundstages, a truth that several blatantly obvious matte shots of the New York skyline do little to dispel. Likewise, though 1930s Harlem was a hotbed of swing and classic jazz, there's little of that on display here. With the exception of a great Louis Armstrong version of "Drop Me Off In Harlem", there's nothing here that truly catches the ear, even with the great Herbie Hancock providing the musical score (though his main title theme, admittedly, is quite handsome), and we even have to wait until the closing credits before we get to hear Pops do his thing. We don't get a sense of Harlem as the major African-American cultural center that it was during this period; aside from a quick background shot of a dancer who strongly resembles a Nicholas brother, you wouldn't know that Harlem was, at this time, more or less the capital of black America.
Murphy's portrayal of race relations during this period is, surprisingly, somewhat better thought out. The filmmaker never lets us forget that one of the reasons Calhoune wants Sugar Ray out is that he can't abide a black man horning in on what he considers a white man's turf. Of course, in classically hypocritical white American racist fashion, that doesn't stop him from sharing his bed with Dominique; he's yet another white man who feels that what's on the sheets and what's in the streets shouldn't mix. I find it likewise intriguing and more or less accurate that Murphy does not have Quick and Sugar Ray planning to take on Calhoune full force, but instead conspiring to scam him good and then skip town, hoping for greener pastures elsewhere. It was a simple fact that in 1938 in America, it was too early for black men, even black men as skillful and slick as Quick and Sugar Ray, to expect a fair fight against a man like Bugsy Calhoune. It would be another few decades before men like these would really get a chance to take on the establishment on its own terms, and Murphy smartly recognizes this reality and shapes his story to work within it.
All of this indicates that if Murphy really wanted to, he could have turned Harlem Nights into a legitimate straight-up crime thriller with historical-sociological implications, a story that would do for 1930s black New York what novelist Walter Mosley did for 1940s black L.A. in Devil in a Blue Dress, published a year after the release of Murphy's film. But Murphy either didn't feel comfortable with or trust that his audience would buy the idea of a 100% straight-dramatic Eddie Murphy picture (a problem that I think the real Murphy is still grappling with, as he's never followed the lead of many of his fellow comedians and taken a wholly straight role; even his performance in Dreamgirls features shades of his famous Saturday Night Live "James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party" sketch). Thus, Murphy feels obligated to shoehorn comedy into the picture whenever he can, and the result is a film with a wildly inconsistent tone that usually plays as either too funny for thrills or too dark for laughs. Murphy's screenplay (which "won" the Golden Razzberry Award as the year's worst) makes no legitimate effort to have its characters talk like it's 1938. The actors throw around the same "bitches" and "motherfuckers" that litter every Murphy film from this period, and though some of the lines do score a laugh, as when Murphy threatens to shoot Reese's toe off by telling her she's "gonna be the nine-toe-havingest limpingest bitch in Harlem", they also distract from the film's period artifice. As you may have guessed from Murphy's line quoted here, many of the film's comedy moments also center around scenes of fairly severe violence. The movie opens with a prologue set in 1918 showing how Quick and Sugar Ray first meet, and it climaxes with the seven-year-old Quick shooting a man in the head (and not accidentally). There's a comic sequence in which Arsenio Hall, portraying a hysterically sobbing gunsel, attacks Quick, who he believes shot his brother, and Murphy makes funny goo-goo baby noises when he finds out that Guy sleeps with an "adorable" little lady's gun under her pillow. Jokes that play on death and violence are hard to pull off even for a master of tone like Quentin Tarantino, and Murphy the director is just not up to milking laughs out of this stuff.
It helps Harlem Nights to no end that, for all the deficiencies of the material, the actors are mostly in top form. Aiello makes an appropriately detestable bad cop, and serves as an effective antidote for Lerner, who plays Calhoune so straight that it drags down the momentum whenever he appears onscreen. If Murphy insisted on making a comedy, a more humorous villain might have spiced up the proceedings nicely, and Lerner's inspired, Oscar-nominated comic performance two years later in Barton Fink shows that he would have been more than up to the task. Rochon and Vic Polizos, as the Calhoune bagman she's assigned to seduce, display such surprisingly intense chemistry that their interplay almost throws the picture off balance; indeed, one thinks there might have been the makings of a whole fascinating film of its own just about these two characters. Foxx and Reese are the veterans here, and their hostile-but-heartfelt back-and-forth is one of the joys of the picture. To me, Redd Foxx is one of those comedians who can be funny just by being in a scene, and he never fails to make me smile here even if all he's doing is looking down his nose out of his oversized Coke-bottle glasses. And whatever else you can say about Murphy's work on this film, it can't be denied that he has created a true valentine to the great Richard Pryor, whose performance here is hands-down the best thing in the film. His Sugar Ray is cool, classy and no-nonsense, able to effortlessly hold court with his own crew and to upend white authority with ease (I love the casual way he stuns a smug white desk cop by tossing him a bundle of bail money the copper never expected a black man to have). Pryor exhibits true paternal concern for Murphy's character, he shares a surprisingly sexy bedroom-banter scene with Berlinda Tolbert, and he's even given the last line of the film, delivered with a wink and a winning smile. There have been rumors through the years that Pryor actually disliked the Harlem Nights script, and that he clashed with director Murphy on the set, but whatever the case, Pryor delivers the goods in a performance that reminds us that he was one of the greatest black screen stars of any era.
And Murphy? His onscreen work here is fascinating and very illuminating. Once you get past how good Murphy looks in the costumes (the actor has never been more suave or sexier on screen), it's interesting how fundamentally unlikable Quick is as a character. He's a hothead, ready to start killing as soon as he feels his honor has been offended, and his slow-simmer presence belies that fact that, by rights, he should be the comic lead here. Indeed, the main thing I took away from watching Murphy in this pistol-slinging period dress role is regret not that he hadn't played his character for more laughs, but that he didn't allow himself to take the chance of producing Harlem Nights as a straight drama. Seeing Murphy in this noirish setting, with the appropriate suits and hats and with a more hard-edged persona than is customary, it made me think that he might even have made an interesting Easy Rawlins in the film version of Devil in a Blue Dress (not to take props away from Denzel Washington, who does a great job in that 1995 film), and it makes me all the more regretful that Murphy has never allowed himself to drop his guard and play it straight like so many other comic actors have over the years.
The film also presents an interesting opportunity to consider Murphy in contrast to his great comedy idol, Pryor. Not long before I watched Harlem Nights again, I looked at Pryor's seminal 1982 film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and at 1987's Eddie Murphy Raw, still the highest-grossing comedy concert film of all time. Pryor's film is one of the single greatest stand-up performances of all time, and one of the reasons for that is that Pryor is never afraid to let the full range of his humanity, his pains and his fears and his hateful side, take center stage. He lets it all hang out, and it's compelling, raucous and moving stuff. Raw, while very funny and stuffed with classic lines and routines, never quite lets us into Murphy's heart in the same way. Though he idolized Pryor for obvious reasons, Murphy's stand-up is actually more reminiscent of that of Steve Martin, who always encased his routines in a thick shield of "comic persona" that prevented his true self from getting through to the audience. Murphy is an often dead-on-target joke machine here, but I don't know him any better from watching Raw than I did before it. This same sensibility also informs the sole directorial efforts of these two men. Three years before Harlem Nights, Pryor was given the opportunity, like Murphy, to direct, write and star in his own vehicle. The result, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, is an uneven but heartfelt, thinly veiled autobiographical work in which Pryor conjures and exorcises the demons of his hard upbringing, romantic travails and battles with substance abuse. Pryor the filmmaker, just like Pryor the stand-up, is not afraid to turn the truths of his life into painful but honest comedy art. Murphy, given the same opportunity, creates a stylized film set in a milieu miles away from the reality of his own life, playing a character who is all cool, razor-slick surface without ever letting the audience in.
Harlem Nights was a financial success upon its original release, as was pretty much everything Murphy released in this period. But it was savaged by the critics so severely that, in many ways, it represented the first true chink in Murphy's previously impenetrable star's armor. While he has received screenplay credit on several films since Harlem Nights, he has not directed again, and his career has been a roller-coaster of mostly family-oriented films both popular (Daddy Day Care) and ghastly (last summer's box-office disaster Meet Dave). His acclaimed work in Dreamgirls, which netted him his only Academy Award nomination to date, was followed almost immediately by the big-budget minstrel show Norbit, which received the worst reviews of his career and which many feel may have cost him the Oscar. I've read countless articles criticizing Murphy's agents and production team for their inability to pick top-quality scripts for this admittedly hugely talented star, but we can't lay the blame entirely at their feet. After all, if Harlem Nights is any indication, giving Murphy full creative control over his own films may not be the wisest course of action either.
P.S. I usually prefer putting film stills or screencaps on these reviews, but I just couldn't resist showing off the Harlem Nights poster, a piece by the great Drew Struzan. It's an image that makes me wish I liked the film it advertised more, because man oh man, would that look nice up on my wall.