Murphy displays a subtlety previously hidden

July 01, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Boomerang," Eddie Murphy's new movie, illustrates a profound principle of aerodynamic mechanics -- that phenomena tend to reiterate orbital patterns in low-yield gravitational fields.

Or, what goes round, comes round, Jack.

That not only describes the plot line but may be a fair evocation of Murphy's career: Unless I miss my guess (known to happen), this joyous, funny movie ought to rescue his reputation from the shame he himself inflicted on it, with two dreary movies in a row, "Another 48 Hours" and the despicable, sexist, hyper-violent "Harlem Nights."

In "Boomerang," Murphy displays a side of himself never before allowed to make it to the screen. Gone -- or at least dealt with ironically -- is the street-jiving punk, the con man and hustler, the phantom of pure attitude, the braggadocio master. Instead: someone just waking up to the wisdom that hurting goes both ways: You can do it, but you can have it done. And when that happens, it doesn't feel so hot.

Murphy plays Marcus Graham, the director of marketing in a large New York cosmetics company. When first we see him, he's living a little boy's fantasy life (the place itself is imagined as a boy's fantasy, with beautiful women lurking in every nook and cranny); he's got a great apartment, a great wardrobe and he's the player, the man with the mostest. Even better: None of his friends are as successful as he. His line of patter is so smooth he can get what he wants in a flash, and once he's got it, he locks into some flaw in his conquest -- bad toes, for example -- and slips out the back.

What goes round comes round. When Murphy's company is devoured by a larger conglomerate, he's suddenly working for a beautiful woman executive even more committed to her career and her pleasures than he is. He goes from stud to object in but a wink, and Robin Givens is the one who objectifies his butt.

This sounds as if justice is poetic -- and a principal pleasure of the movie is seeing attitude king Murphy take it in the chops -- but it doesn't feel like poetry to him. What it feels like is rocks in his socks. Here I think Murphy faces his hardest test as a performer. He can make us laugh with rude antics and he can make us palpitate with trite action-movie thrills. But none of that is acting: It's stand-up or it's gymnastics.

Can he act? Quite a test: If Murphy goes all touchy-feely and maudlin on us, the movie becomes one of those grotesque essays in male self-pity, another one of which the world definitely does not need. If, on the other hand, he can't quite get the air of stunned injury, the shock, the incremental growth, there's no movie at all, only an empty shell, another con job from Hollywood's most accomplished Murphyman and least gifted acting Murphy since Audie.

The answer is, Murphy's terrific. It's a litany of miniature moments, far subtler than anything else he's ever done. A pause, a twitch, an intake of breath. That strange stuff on the Murphy face is pain. It smarts to be a chump.

The movie then becomes a story of salvation: how Murphy's Marcus, through the love of a better woman (Halle Berry) manages to rediscover both his decency and his humanity. And yet, pretty much, it stays funny. "Boomerang" slips only once: There's a long Thanksgiving Day scene set in Murphy's apartment where his pal David Alan Grier brings his down-home parents to dinner. It's not pretty: The older folks are dissed pretty dreadfully for being crude and country in comparison to the buppie set son Grier and buddy Murphy hang in. It's simple class bigotry at its ugliest, and it's so horribly uncharitable, it gives the whole movie a bad taste (and costs it half a star).

'Boomerang'

Starring Eddie Murphy.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

***

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