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Film

Murphy's (F)Law

As an indication of how out of touch the Academy Awards have become, Eddie Murphy makes perfect sense.

It's an odd choice for sure. When you consider his overall lack of Oscar acceptance (one nomination, and an almost certain win circumvented), putting Eddie Murphy in front of the Academy Awards is like inviting the class ugly girl back to the reunion - only to ask her to run for prom queen. Sure, he's a comic and a fine one at that - if this was 1986 - and he's been a box office draw (and drag) for each of the decades he's been in the business. But Murphy doesn't come across as MC material. He's the stunt, the special guest that shows up, knocks 'em dead, and the dawdles off to count his multimillions. At 20 he was comically crude and rude, almost confrontationally so. In his 50s he's become an afterthought in the world of wit he once dominated.

Quick - name the last movie Murphy was in?...physically?...not just as some donkey's jive voice? Give up? It was 2009's Imagine That, the story of a high powered business executive who starts to use his daughter's imaginary friend as a financial advisor. Before that? 2008's Meet Dave, where our once formidable box office draw played by a British accented miniature alien and the Eddie Murphy styled 'human spaceship' the being travels around in. Huh? And let's not forget the fabulous disaster before that, the movie which may or may not have just cost the comic his only shot at a little gold statue - Norbit. Following his Nutty Professor formula, Murphy went all make-up and drag to play a sheepish little man, his adoptive Chinese father, and the elephantine wife from Hell.

In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2006 and Dreamgirls to find a role where the comedian found both audience and critical approval. Before that, he had the horrid Haunted Mansion and the equally idiotic Daddy Day Care. It's safe to say that the last time Murphy shined within his given genre was 1999, when he starred in the Steve Martin spoof Bowfinger. That's 12 years ago and an entire new career devoted to family entertainment and the diminishing returns achieved by same. In fact, the weirdest aspect of Murphy's selection is not the obvious movie biz nepotism involved (director Brett Ratner is producing this year's ceremonies, and the selection stinks of a tie-in to his latest movie, starring Murphy, Tower Heist). No, the oddest part is how a man who made his living cursing like a sailor can now sell his kid vid persona to people who are expecting some bite.

Indeed, Murphy, like another far superior contemporary comic, Chris Rock, are part of a plan to make the Academy Awards seem less like a prejudiced plantation house. With all the advances made by minorities in the movies the last decade or so, it only seems far that all aspects of the show reflect the times. Yet as Rock proved with his frequently derided performance, Oscar doesn't want "edge." The geek bleak Messageboard universe may want the ceremony shuttled down a few dozen notches, but placing a stand-up on stage and then hoping he'll be bother respectful and irreverent is not the way of going about it. Rock learned the hard way. So did other famous 'flops' (David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres).

By putting Murphy in front of the tuxedoed and haute couture crowd, the same complications come up. Anyone whose seen his infamous stand-up specials - Delirious and Raw - knows that he rarely works clean. Blue is a favorite color for everything in Murphy's comic bag of tricks. From ideas to the words that express them, he's not interested in politics or public policies - he's into prurience. A Honeymooner's homosexual love affair. A description of feminine hygiene. For every quip aimed at his childhood or time as a teen, he adds in scatology and raunch. Now, given the context of who he is and the form he came from (Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor), Murphy is amazing. He's a Van Gogh of vileness and an expert mimic to boot.

On the other hand, he has the borderline bothersome ability to take his race and turn it into his sole reason for being. Instead of incendiary, he can be cruel and stand-offish. Add in his failed music career (party all the time indeed, Mr. M) and this recent run to the overflowing coffers of paltry PG fare and he's a complication waiting to implode. Granted, this could be the moment we've all been waiting for, a fiery, fierce comeback on one of the largest stages in the world. It could also be like Elvis - a idol of Murphy's ever since he came onto the scene. Some folks will want the rock-a-billy hound dog. Others will hope he drops the showboating swivel and sticks to the sequined caped patriotism of his heftier phase.

Of course, the social network has been having a field day deciphering just how Murphy will reference his past. Will he come out as Buckwheat/Gumby/Sherman Klump and malaprop/rant/fart his way through the monologue? Will he reference his Dreamgirls loss and whine over Alan Arkin's win? Will he be brave and mock all the bombs he's been in? Better still, will he use his mistaken belief in the power of his voice to sing about all the Best Picture noms ala Billy Crystal? When taken seriously, one can easily argue the validity of Murphy as a host. He has dozens of options at his disposal and it's clear than Ratner believes that his take on the Oscars can make grand use of them. Is there the potential for it all to go horribly pear shaped and spectacularly wrong. Absolutely. Murphy is not longer a true given. Instead, he's a possibility, not a probability.

As an indication of how out of touch the Academy Awards have become, Eddie Murphy makes perfect sense. He's an icon from another era, a fixture from the phase when movie comedy was growing up. Today, no cinematic laugher exists without the daredevil bravado of comedians like Murphy, Rock, and the revelatory mentor, the late great Richard Pryor. Skin color doesn't matter - timing and the tenacity to exploit anything for laughs does. Murphy may turn out to be a genius choice. History argues that, like the conversation before, his reviews will be part "told you so" and part backseat bickering. Obviously Oscar can do little to change its reputation. All in can manage is to move the conversation away from its flaws - and Murphy makes a perfect preview scapegoat.

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