Way back in November, the possibility still seemed real that Eddie Murphy could break out of movie jail.
After starring in a long string of critically savaged films and some of the previous decade's biggest flops, Murphy was set to appear in a splashy vehicle that, for a change, did not provoke howls of scorn from critics: the ensemble comedy Tower Heist, costarring Ben Stiller and directed by Brett Ratner. It was to have been Murphy’s redemption, dovetailing synergistically with the Beverly Hills Cop star’s moment in the spotlight as host of the 2012 Oscars, also to be directed by Ratner.
Then, with astonishing speed, Murphy was effectively put back in Hollywood lockdown. In short order, Tower Heist fizzled, and Murphy quit the Academy Awards broadcast after Ratner was pressured to exit the Oscars (thanks to the outcry generated by the director’s comment that “rehearsal is for fags”). Today, Murphy’s latest movie, A Thousand Words, arrives in theaters accompanied by some of the worst buzz of any film this decade, with pre-release “tracking” reports predicting it will flop spectacularly, perhaps not even placing among the top five grossing films in its opening three days of release.
Given the movie’s rollout on a relatively paltry 1,500 screens, the token marketing push by its distributor Paramount, and minimal press support from Murphy, the sentiment surrounding A Thousand Words seems to be the less said the better. The story of how the movie came to be shelved for nearly four years before becoming the latest evidence that Murphy’s career has gone ice cold is a comedy of errors shot through with Hollywood hubris, greed, and studio brinksmanship at its worst.
Hot off his 2007 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the musical drama Dreamgirls, Murphy signed on to A Thousand Words to portray a fast-talking literary agent who double-crosses a spiritual guru and is cursed; he can speak only 1,000 more words before dying an untimely death. The project, which reteamed Murphy with director Brian Robbins following their 2007 hit Norbit, would rise or fall on a simple principle: by not talking, Murphy’s character would get a freewheeling showcase for his exaggerated brand of comedic pantomime.
The so-called high-concept morality comedy (with a reported production budget of $70 million) wrapped the following year and was originally scheduled for release in 2009. But then came a corporate divorce and a Murphy cold streak at the box office that effectively silenced any conversation about A Thousand Words.
Produced by DreamWorks while the studio was still a division of Paramount Pictures, the movie was put into limbo when the companies dissolved their business arrangement. With Paramount left the task of marketing and distributing A Thousand Words, studio executives decided to sit on the film after Murphy’s next two movies were lambasted by critics and flopped. Meet Dave (which Robbins also directed) and Imagine That both failed to connect with viewers, losing tens of millions of dollars in the process and damaging perceptions about the star’s commercial viability.
There was a time in Hollywood when Murphy’s career wasn’t stuck in first gear. He streaked to prominence as the first “urban” comedian to crack the mainstream in the '80s and became a household name thanks to movie hits such as Trading Places and Coming to America. In addition to his Oscar-nominated bona fides, the actor has lent his voice to the wisecracking Donkey in four blockbuster animated Shrek movies.
But a long string of paycheck movies and dumbed-down family films—The Klumps, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, and perhaps most disastrously The Adventures of Pluto Nash (a $100 million film that grossed an anemic $7 million)—obliterated Murphy’s street cred and turned him into an object of ridicule for other comedians.
Ultimately, Murphy’s track record of generating billions of dollars in ticket receipts around the world and his standing as one of America’s most iconic funnymen couldn’t mask the stench of decay coming off his career. And disastrous test screenings for A Thousand Words in 2008–09 reportedly gave the studio cold feet about its chances at the multiplex. But dumping the movie off as a straight-to-video release would have hurt the bottom line for Paramount’s parent company Viacom, with a costly write-off. So the decision was made to give the film a release date in January, the month generally considered a movie graveyard where studios bury their commercial stiffs.
Lo and behold last summer, however, freewheeling fauxteur Ratner got hired to direct the Oscars, and in a move hailed by both critics and film fans, Murphy agreed to host the broadcast. In turn, Paramount moved the release of A Thousand Words back to March in an effort to capitalize on Murphy’s televised turn before an audience of nearly 40 million viewers. But when Ratner quit in November amid the shitstorm of controversy, Murphy left with him.
With the notable exclusions of Dreamgirls and the Shrek movies, you’d have to go all the way back to 1999’s Bowfinger, costarring Steve Martin, to find a Murphy movie that (a) didn’t suck and (b) also managed to turn a profit at the box office. So given the dire commercial prospects facing his latest film, can Murphy ever emerge from movie jail? Can he recover from the impending “let us never speak of this again” failure of A Thousand Words?
The actor is set to put his more serious side on display with his next project, portraying the crack cocaine–smoking former D.C. mayor Marion Barry in an HBO biopic to be directed by Spike Lee. But because Murphy skipped out on the obligatory talk-show promo circuit for A Thousand Words—where stars of his ilk tout their films, crack wise, and pledge allegiance to the moviegoing public to give them what they want—we don’t know how he views his predicament. For now Murphy isn’t talking. And he remains in solitary confinement.