- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Eddie Murphy’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls” should mean a second coming for the dethroned superstar.

Or will it?

The comic actor’s ascent from “Saturday Night Live” standout to box office titan was as swift as it was deserving.

He was cool and compelling, whether he was staring down rednecks in “48 Hours” (1982) or outhustling the fuzz in “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984).

And how could you forget that laugh, so winning you couldn’t help snickering, too.

For a while, Mr. Murphy’s Midas touch seemed permanent. We even bought weak vanity projects like “The Golden Child” (1986) and explained away his more mean-spirited stand-up bits. Fans can revisit Mr. Murphy on stage via his 1983 concert film “Eddie Murphy: Delirious,” finally on DVD this week.

Then came “Harlem Nights,” “Vampire in Brooklyn” and the punch line that was “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” (2002).

But even if he hoists Oscar Feb. 25, it doesn’t guarantee his artistic resurrection.

For starters, there’s “Norbit.”

Mr. Murphy’s new comedy, which opened last week, finds him playing a multitude of roles again a la “The Nutty Professor” films. He’s Norbit, the henpecked husband, as well as Norbit’s overweight, overbearing wife, Rasputia. The laughs come chiefly from paint-by-numbers slapstick, which is beneath him.

Yet this kind of sophomoric farce has kept him relevant, at least commercially, for the past decade. For every clunker like “Showtime” or “Holy Man,” he has a “Daddy Day Care” or “Nutty Professor” to cushion his bank account.

True to form, “Norbit” hauled in $34 million in its first week, perhaps abetted by Mr. Murphy’s current buzz.

But where’s the edge, the fire that made him a star? He’s too talented to play the vapid comic lead in these bland features.

Besides, that’s Steve Martin’s job now. We don’t need two great comics phoning it in.

Mr. Murphy can be forgiven for “Norbit” mainly because he shot it before the “Dreamgirls” hysteria. But the actor is talking up a “Beverly Hills Cop IV,” the kind of desperate move he might have made if he’d never come within 100 yards of an Oscar.

Russell Williams, American University’s artist-in-residence and a two-time Oscar winner for his sound work on “Glory” and “Dances with Wolves,” wasn’t surprised with Mr. Murphy’s dazzling “Dreamgirls” turn.

“He had to get out of his comfort zone,” Mr. Williams says, adding a loss of confidence may have led him to seek comfort in safer film roles of late.

Mr. Williams worked with Mr. Murphy on three features, “Boomerang,” “The Distinguished Gentleman” and “Life.” Those experiences gave him an unexpected glimpse of the actor.

“He’s very quiet and off to himself … he wasn’t the affable, funny man you see on film,” he says. “When they yell, ‘Action,’ he turns it on.”

That seriousness could serve him in any career renaissance, but Mr. Williams suggests it’ll take more than talent for Mr. Murphy to reclaim his throne. He’ll need the help of the people around him.

It’s hard for advisers to tell stars what they actually think, Mr. Williams says. “You really have to be secure if you’re an adviser or an agent,” he says.

The early signs make it sound as if Mr. Murphy’s entourage is staying mum.

In addition to a third “Cop” sequel, Mr. Murphy is attached to the sci-fi comedy “Starship Dave” with his “Norbit” director, Brian Robbins, and then he’s attached to “Nowhereland,” from the minds behind the “Bill & Ted” features.

Anyone who forgot the energy Mr. Murphy can whip up from his imagination should rent “Delirious,” shot at DAR Constitution Hall. The DVD also features a new interview with the star, conducted by Byron Allen.

That’s more than most of us will hear from him these days.

Mr. Murphy is notoriously press shy and no longer does print interviews. That doesn’t mean he’s free from the tabloid tractor beam. A 1997 incident involving him picking up a transvestite caused smirky headlines, as did recent news that he may be the father of Scary Spice aka Melanie Brown’s new baby.

Mr. Williams says those headlines could sour Oscar voters, but he thinks the “Dreamgirls” performance will win out in the end. And the statuette could give Mr. Murphy the signal to “break through what’s been safe and maybe explore some new territory,” he adds.

“I hope he takes that cue correctly.”

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