Eddie Murphy has been a fixture on our screens since the early 1980s, when his brief tenure as a Saturday Night Live cast member helped keep the series afloat during some of its darkest years — and prevented us from looking at Gumby, Buckwheat, James Brown, or Mister Rogers the same way ever again. It would be perhaps excessively polite to say that his critical track record over the last 20 years has been spotty, but in spite of the Meet Dave‘s and Vampire in Brooklyn‘s dotting his resume, Murphy has helped pull in over $3 billion in box office receipts — and since his latest effort, Imagine That, is reaching theaters this Friday, we thought now would be the perfect time to devote a Total Recall to his 10 best-reviewed movies.
As with many of our Total Recall subjects, there are certain films that you just know will be on the list (hello, Beverly Hills Cop) and ones that obviously won’t (The Adventures of Pluto Nash did not make the cut). But portions of the list may still surprise you; if there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from this series, it’s a healthy level of disagreement over what got bumped, what didn’t, and how the rankings broke down. So let’s start the countdown — and when we’re done, head over to Murphy’s complete filmography for a more in-depth look at where he’s been!
He’d missed the mark a couple of times — 1986’s The Golden Child didn’t live up to expectations, and 1984’s Best Defense was described by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby as “mind-bendingly bad” — but on the whole, Eddie Murphy’s film career seemed pretty much unstoppable by 1988; the idea that his hot streak was about to end would have seemed ludicrous. As we all know, Coming to America was followed by a back-to-back pair of infamous duds in Harlem Nights and Another 48 Hrs., making the prince-out-of-water comedy the unofficial end of Murphy’s early rise at the box office — but if it had to end, at least he ended it in style, turning in the first of what would become many prosthetics-assisted multi-role performances in a hit reunion with his Trading Places director, John Landis. In the words of critic Mark R. Leeper, Coming to America is “to date the high-water mark for Landis’s directorial career, and it is the best film Eddie Murphy has ever been in.”
By 1996, Eddie Murphy hadn’t had a box office hit since Boomerang in 1992 — and had tumbled through a string of duds stretching back to 1989, one which included Another 48 Hrs., The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn. It was a good time for a comeback, in other words — and Murphy found just the right vehicle in the Tom Shadyac-directed remake of Jerry Lewis’ 1963 comedy about a schlub whose miracle serum transforms him into a fast-talking cretin named Buddy Love. Blending family-friendly (albeit heavily scatological) humor with a script that allowed Murphy to don a dizzying series of prosthetics and display his impressive range, The Nutty Professor gobbled up over $125 million in worldwide receipts and earned a healthy number of positive reviews from critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote that “Murphy outdoes himself by bringing pathos as well as sweetness to the character, arguably making him a viable update of Lewis’s bucktoothed Julius Kelp.”
A decade after sparking a comeback with The Nutty Professor, Murphy found his career back in the doldrums again; his voiceover work in the Shrek films notwithstanding, Murphy’s post-Professor years were a wasteland of critical and commercial duds like Metro, Showtime, and the infamous The Adventures of Pluto Nash, with brief breaks for the mildly successful Bowfinger and a Doctor Dolittle remake that duplicated the PG humor (and box office success) of The Nutty Professor. Not much to suggest that Murphy was still interested in actual acting, in other words — which is one reason critics were so pleasantly surprised by his Academy Award-nominated turn as James “Thunder” Early in Tom Condon’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Though Murphy wasn’t the star of the show — and his castmate Jennifer Hudson matched his Golden Globe with one of her own, plus an Oscar — it proved he still had the talent that made him famous. (He then turned right around and made Norbit, of course, but that’s another story.)
If it had come together a decade sooner, 1999’s Eddie Murphy/Steve Martin summit Bowfinger might have been a collaboration of epic proportions; as it was, neither Martin nor Murphy were exactly flush with cinematic goodwill in ’99, with memories of would-be comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Holy Man still fresh in filmgoers’ minds. Which is sort of a shame, because the Martin-penned Bowfinger ended up being one of the sharper and more entertaining Hollywood satires to reach theaters in years, sending up the town, the studio system, and — though Martin has denied it — the church of Scientology. Acting in dual roles as the world-famous, insanely paranoid Kit Ramsey and his milquetoast, talent-deficient twin brother Jiff, Murphy was able to poke fun at his own insulated image while flexing more of the multiple-role muscle audiences enjoyed with The Nutty Professor — minus the mounds of latex, of course. Bowfinger turned a solid profit at the box office, and at 79 percent on the Tomatometer, it was Murphy’s highest-rated live-action effort in years — something noticed by USA Today’s Mike Clark, who wrote, “aside from The Nutty Professor, this is the funniest Eddie Murphy comedy since the Reagan administration.”
Murphy’s first stand-up concert film, 1983’s Delirious, is an acknowledged comedy classic — but it was also a low-budget affair, filmed for the nascent HBO during the early years of Murphy’s career. Four years later, money was no longer a problem for any Eddie Murphy production, and he returned to the concert arena, with director Robert Townsend in tow, for 1987’s Raw. Mixing riffs on his life as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (including a famous bit about Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, a Coke, and a smile) with typically profane observations on race relations and marriage. Few critics tried to argue that Raw was as funny as Delirious — and Murphy himself seemed to know he was standing in its shadow, as he referenced a number of the earlier film’s bits in his Raw routine — but he was still near the top of his game. As Richard Harrington of the Washington Post wrote, “[Murphy’s] material, which trades on racial and sexual stereotypes even as it skewers them, may be offensive to some, but for others he remains a hell of a good yuck.”
It kicked off a $735 million film franchise, made Harold Faltermeyer a synth god, and taught aspiring police officers the importance of not falling for a banana in the tailpipe — but in 1984, all that mattered to Eddie Murphy was that Beverly Hills Cop helped erase memories of Best Defense, the roundly panned alleged comedy he’d made with Dudley Moore earlier in the year. Though its legacy would eventually be tainted by a pair of progressively more inessential sequels, Cop arguably represents the acme of the ’80s action comedy, offering thrills, laughs, a familiar character actor in the villain’s role, and a small army of synthesizers on the score — not bad for a script that Mickey Rourke and Sylvester Stallone both passed on (the latter reportedly took his vision for Cop and used it as the basis for Cobra). Of course, it’s impossible now to imagine anyone but Murphy as the wisecracking Axel Foley; the funny script, and Martin Brest’s ad-lib-friendly direction, were a perfect fit for what Time’s Richard Schickel called “the kind of cheeky, cocky charm that has been missing from the screen since Cagney was a pup, snarling his way out of the ghetto.”
After Shrek barrelled through theaters in 2001, it was pretty much a given that DreamWorks Animation would produce a sequel — and given that Eddie Murphy had already made Beverly Hills Cop III, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and Dr. Dolittle 2, it seemed a pretty safe bet that if the script was written in anything resembling English, he’d be back for another round as Donkey. Murphy didn’t disappoint — and neither did Shrek 2, racking up an admirable 89 percent on the Tomatometer to match its predecessor’s, thanks to a script loaded with laughs, an expanded voice cast that included Antonio Banderas, John Cleese, and Julie Andrews, and typically gorgeous CG animation. Murphy’s character even got a family of his own (and introduced audiences to something called a “dronkey” in the process). Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman echoed the sentiments of many of his peers when he wrote, “it’s not quite as emotionally rounded as Shrek was, but it’s got heart and delirium in equal doses, as well as a firecracker rhythm all its own.”
He made his animated debut as the voice of Mushu the dragon in 1998’s Mulan, but Eddie Murphy really hit the cartoon jackpot with 2001’s Shrek, a DreamWorks Animation adaptation of the bestselling William Steig children’s book about the adventures of a big green ogre (voiced here by Mike Myers). Providing the voice of Shrek’s chatterbox companion Donkey, Murphy invited plenty of backhanded compliments (Time’s Richard Shickel wrote that “no one has ever made a funnier jackass of himself than Eddie Murphy”) — and pretty much ran away with the movie in the process, channeling a G-rated version of the boundless charisma and comic energy that audiences had been missing for far too long. And for viewers who had found Murphy’s earlier, edgier humor a little difficult to take, Shrek was a long-overdue change; for USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna, for example, one of the best parts of the movie was “an exuberant Eddie Murphy [giving] the comic performance of his career.”
For his cinematic debut, 1982’s 48 Hrs., Murphy took advantage of having Nick Nolte as a straight man; for his second effort, 1983’s Trading Places, he went mano a mano with fellow funnyman (and SNL vet) Dan Aykroyd. Of course, Aykroyd ended up leaving most of the laughs to Murphy — it’s possible that even Don Ameche had more funny lines — but Places still proved that Murphy could hold his own against one of Hollywood’s most popular comedians. Unlike most early Murphy vehicles, it also surrounded him with a ton of A-list talent, including Aykroyd, Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, and Jamie Lee Curtis, which — along with Timothy Harris and Hershel Weingrod’s rather pointed script — enabled director John Landis to create an uncommonly sturdy framework around Murphy’s rapid-fire riffing. The result was a film that entertains whether you’re watching it for some light commentary on the “nature vs. nurture” debate or simply to see Murphy pretend to be a blind, legless veteran. As Film Threat’s Brad Laidman noted, “because Eddie doesn’t have to carry the whole movie, he is free to make every word that comes out of his mouth infinitely appealing.”
The movie that launched Eddie Murphy’s film career, the box office reign of producer Joel Silver, and arguably the entire “buddy cop” genre, Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. overcame a stint in turnaround and countless rewrites to become one of 1982’s biggest hits and — surprise! — Murphy’s best-reviewed film (so far, anyway). And why not? A number of Murphy’s most memorable silver screen bits are here, including his impassioned rendition of the Police’s “Roxanne” and the classic scene where he stuns a bar full of rhinestone cowboys into submission; in fact, you could argue that the template for his entire early film career — and the “classic” Murphy whose disappearance we bemoan so frequently — was molded from the impression left by the wisecracking Reggie Hammond. It’s temping to wonder what might have been if 48 Hrs. had been made as the Clint Eastwood/Richard Pryor vehicle it started out as, but as Roger Ebert noted, this is a film that transcends its rather limited origins because of its stars: “The movie’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s pretty routine. What makes the movie special is how it’s made. Nolte and Murphy are good, and their dialogue is good, too — quirky and funny.”
Finally, here’s a classic SNL skit in which Murphy (as Clarence Walker) offers convincing proof that he was the fifth Beatle: