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In the last 15 years or so, Eddie Murphy has made a slow but steady transformation from the potty-mouthed provocateur that dominated stages and screens alike into a purveyor of family-friendly fun, albeit one whose sense of actual "fun" is wildly uneven.
Murphy was always charming, and his instinct for comedic transformation began with the five roles he played in John Landis' "Coming to America"; but after "The Nutty Professor," he started a steep and steady decline in the eyes of his formerly faithful audiences, who saw his forays into kid-friendly fluff as a betrayal of the badass persona he'd perfected as a stand-up comic and hungry young actor.
With the release of his latest film "Tower Heist," however, Murphy seems like he might be back on the right track to taking on grown-up fare in a way that is not just faithful to his early work, but is actually funny in its own right.
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Costarring Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda, the film focuses on a group of employees at a ritzy New York hotel who decide to take revenge on its richest inhabitant after he squanders their retirement funds. Murphy plays an ex-convict who lives near Stiller's character, and the two forge a tenuous partnership in exchange for his help in infiltrating the banker's penthouse and liberating his golden parachute.
The character falls squarely into Murphy's former wheelhouse, as he plays a tough, fast-talking con man who's only to happy to help someone stick it to The Man. Director Brett Ratner offers an introduction to the character that evokes the ones Landis gave him in "Trading Places" and Walter Hill gave him in "48 Hrs.", first as he's on the street accosting passersby with wild stories, and then later when a long tracking shot in a jail lands on his cell as he's being released.
Moreover, Murphy's character is fearless and fast-thinking, able to squeak his way out of any sticky situation. For example, while the team gathers at a restaurant near the hotel to stake it out while setting up a home base of sorts, they quickly discover that the prices on the menu far exceed their meager means. Murphy holds up a bag with a roach in it and says, "Order what you want -- lunch is on me." This is not unlike the various sequences in "Beverly Hills Cop" or "Trading Places" where he's had to improvise an escape route after getting himself in hot water. He displays a much different attitude than he has in his recent, more family-oriented work, not simply by being bombastic and overconfident, but ruthlessly funny and resourceful as he gets more and more involved in the heist.
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Perhaps most importantly, however, Murphy is just Murphy in the film. There are no fat suits, rubber masks, or makeup jobs to transform him into anyone other than himself. While "Dreamgirls" gave audiences a glimpse at the real actor that was buried for so long behind all of those prosthetics, this is the film that has the potential to remind viewers who Murphy is, and what made him a movie star. And the truth is that Murphy has always been a great-looking guy, an actor with born leading-man looks. It feels like this is the first time in a long time that he's been able to access that charm -- that singular, natural star quality -- that was only augmented when he opened his mouth.
The film also harkens back to Murphy's days when he worked more with ensemble casts, such as in "Coming to America" and "Beverly Hills Cop," and it's incredibly fun to see him playing off of a real variety of personalities, especially all in one film. And with comedians in general seeming to lose some of the superstar momentum that they enjoyed in decades prior, Murphy's return to the spotlight that he deserves is a welcome one. Let's just hope he continues to shine.