PopMatters Film and TV Editor
In Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Eddie Murphy gets to have his cake and eat it too. And not just literally. In playing six characters the titular Professor Sherman Klump, all of his grown relatives, and his not very repressed alter ego Buddy Love Murphy gets to perform and also critique just about every aspect of his own multi-faceted and long-evolving comedic style. This is a remarkable achievement, no doubt. Consider that many actors don’t even have a specific style, much less one with more than one or two angles, much less one that lends itself to successful self-examination (or something like that). Murphy’s fortunate to have such a wealth of material close at hand, and he exploits it to the max.
From start to finish, the film is suffused with Eddie Murphyness, his elevated sense of himself and his desire to do “what no one else has done before.” There are other elements involved, of course, including Rick Baker’s frankly incredible prosthetics effects, direction by Peter Segal (whose previous pictures include Tommy Boy and My Fellow Americans), and a decent soundtrack, by Def Jam’s finest and friends (Jay-Z, Eve, Montell Jordan, Redman and Eminem, Sisqo and Foxy Brown’s remix of “Thong Song”). But while The Klumps is nominally written by two sets of writers, including several veterans of previous Murphy movies (Nutty, Coming to America, and Boomerang) and Paul and Chris Weitz (American Pie and Chuck & Buck), the funny stuff is plainly all Murphy, who famously ad-libbed much of Klump character scenes, a point illustrated briefly but amusingly by the outtakes at film’s end.
There are at least two ways to think about The Klumps, both premised on Hollywood’s number one mantra: making money. First, it’s the inevitable sequel to 1996’s Nutty Professor, a mostly mediocre remake of a middling Jerry Lewis movie whose pleasantly surprising $270 million profits were largely attributed to the two remarkable scenes featuring Murphy as all the Klump family members save Ernie Jr. (Jamal Mixon), whose primary function in both films is, apparently, to stuff his face. This makes it like one of those Saturday Night Live movies, a four-minute skit stretched to 100 or so minutes, that is, something of a crapshoot.
And second, it’s the inevitable next Eddie Murphy movie, in type and scope and attitude. It’s common knowledge that his film career was rejuvenated by the first Nutty (as the insiders call it), that he was suddenly and surprisingly re-christened as a family-movie-remake star, and went on to make Dr. Doolittle. The new image mostly expunged his previous rep, which stemmed from his mean-spirited stand-up humor (the homophobic stuff was a bit strained after his encounter with the transvestite, after all), his politically-charged SNL humor (recall the fabulous Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood material), and even his reasonably successful anti-player consciousness in Boomerang, and recast him as a comedian For the Whole Family. Certainly, this was a strange development at the time, but it also paved the way for the subsequent developments in “family” comedy. If the genre was always leaning toward so-called juvenile jokes farts and poop and peeping-tomfoolery with Murphy’s entry into the game, the rules loosened some more, and “nasty” gags and below-the-belt observations increased. This isn’t to say that Murphy is responsible for the shift in family comedy Jim Carrey is probably more immediately accountable but it is to note Murphy’s usually overlooked part in the process.
So, in The Klumps, Murphy gets to be “kind and gentle and brilliant” as Sherman is called by his university science department colleague and fiancee Denise Gaines (Janet Jackson) in addition to vile (as Buddy Love) and full-out scabrous (as the Klumps). The basic situation of the comedy Sherman’s efforts to marry Denise, Buddy’s efforts to emerge from and sabotage Sherman, the family’s use of Sherman’s miraculous “youth juice” is mostly irrelevant. What’s important and often very funny is the family’s verbal feuding, as they comment on one another’s shortcomings in terms of age, sex, appetite, career, appearance, intelligence, fashion sense, etc., etc.
The family’s immediate dilemma is the impending wedding, which does provide minimal plot structure. The film’s first scene is Sherman’s nightmare vision of what will happen at the altar when he looks down on Denise’s pushed-up cleavage and gets the hard-on to beat all hard-ons (leading to Buddy Love’s startling first appearance), and ensuing comic encounters include those between Sherman and Denise’s rocket-scientist parents, Buddy and Sherman as two separate people (due to some loony tunes DNA extraction business), Sherman and his still-greedy college Dean, Richmond (Larry Miller), and the Dean and a genetically altered gigantor hamster who, as one observer puts it, makes the poor man “his bitch.” I’m not sure how to read the fact that this line provided the one moment when the bulk of the preview audience was not wholly and uproariously engaged: it elicited a slight pause, as if they didn’t know quite what to think.
During a summer filled with all kinds of low humor on movie screens, the fact that an image or an idea might be a little over the edge is surprising. Is it that furry little animals unlike, say, chickens are off-limits as fodder for butt-jokes? Or is it that Murphy is so out there, in the midst of his family film career, that his comedy might still actually offend someone (especially by returning to his old standby, gay-baiting)? In this context, it’s worth noting that the climax of the film turns on Sherman’s effort to recombine with Buddy, to “eat” him, as Sherman himself puts it (a phrasing that leads his father to pull back in alarm: “You’re headed down the wrong off-ramp there!”). So, for all the heterosexual romance at the center of the film’s surface plot, the real point is for Sherman to love his inner Buddy, even when or especially when he’s out.
What may be most remarkable about The Klumps is how it can, quite like Murphy’s FOX-TV series, The PJs, joke about issues and attitudes that more mainstream comedy might not touch, and still come off like it’s unconditionally mainstream, playing on primetime network television and in a family movie. Murphy’s targets are selective, his timing shrewd. Then again, this seemingly edgy tone in The Klumps may not be so different from what’s worked as mainstream material in the past. And this despite the fact that the most unnervingly familiar moments of recognition in the movie actually don’t involve Murphy per se, but Murphy as the crazy Klumps. For as they gripe and grump and sling all kinds of arrows at one another, the most lucid and insightful character among them is Denise. She shares one especially odd and tender scene with Anna (Mama) Klump, as Denise tries on her future in-law’s old, huge wedding dress while agreeably nibbling on a plate of s’mores pie. Even aside from the genderfuck going on here, there’s something both creepy and touching about seeing Miss Jackson play the “normal” one.