Eddie Murphy Raw, a 1987 concert film featuring the comic at one of his popular peaks, shows him at a crossroads. The film is now out on DVD, a bare-bones release ideal for dissection, isolating the best and worst of Murphy.
First, as kind of a warm-up, he performs a series of SNL style impressions; here Murphy initially seems a touch too beholden, with his easy-laugh impressions of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor (both huge influences on Murphy and comedy at large), but the way that he places himself in the middle of the two legends—Cosby calls him up to complain about the profanity in his act, and Pryor says fuck ‘em—is sly, and even when mocking Cosby, cleverly affectionate.
The middle of the film mainly consists of a long, angry screed about the possibility of paying alimony. Possibility is the key here: Murphy doesn’t seem to be referring to any specific relationship experience of his; rather, the mere idea that a woman could take money from him in a divorce settlement fills him with rage. Rage can be hilarious, but Murphy dwells on this topic for 10, maybe 15 minutes, a big chunk out of the film’s 90. The problem isn’t that the material is sexist (although it certainly is that, in parts) so much as it’s petty. Are we supposed to feel good about Eddie Murphy the millionaire ranting about women who want his cash? The comic who is so brilliant at playing characters looks weakest playing himself.
This is a common theme in Murphy’s career; he’s a brilliant comic actor who sometimes overestimates his own appeal. Unlike, say, Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, Murphy has always been a comedian first; a quick flip through his filmography shows almost exclusively comedies. He’s shown a spotty interest in working with talented directors and favors sequels like Beverly Hills Cop III (1994) and Another 48 Hours (1990). This is the stand-up comic’s narcissism taken to often disastrous extremes; the insistence that any picture with Eddie Murphy should be an Eddie Murphy picture. Maybe this is why his first Nutty Professor remake (1996) was so warmly received; Murphy’s portly, kind Sherman Klump is a likable creation, and his hyperactive Buddy Love is a parody of Murphy the marauding stand-up.
Ironically, it’s that Murphy—the one from Nutty Professor, Bowfinger (1999), 48 Hours (1982), and SNL—who comes into full view for the last third of Eddie Murphy Raw. This section is a stand-up tour de force. Careening from race relations to autobiography, Murphy effortlessly segues from a riff on whites feeling empowered after seeing the Rocky movies, to a dissection of a fight breaking out at a club (this bit features the first “white people just can’t dance” joke I’ve laughed at in ages, and it’s from almost two decades ago), to a phone call Murphy places to his drunk father, who proceeds to lecture his son about his own hard knock upbringing. This is where Murphy approaches the storytelling skills of Pryor and Cosby, mixed with a sketch comedian’s gonzo willingness to take a joke to its surreal extremes.
Raw‘s mix of genius, goofiness, and arrogance refers to just about every performance of Murphy’s career, excluding only his recent run as a weirdly benign family-film straight man. The film was noted at the time as a raunchy and potentially offensive showcase for its star (and indeed, the gay stereotypes still grate, although they now seem more clueless than truly hateful). Now it plays like Murphy from all angles.