Film review: Harlem Nights

Published: Sunday, Dec. 10 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

Eddie Murphy seems to be testing his audience. This time to the limit.

After his enormous popularity in "48 HRS.," "Trading Places" and "Beverly Hills Cop," Murphy started going downhill with "The Golden Child," "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "Coming to America."

But his fans didn't care that these latter films weren't up to Murphy's comic talents. They stuck it out with him and made all three enormously successful at the box office.

But "Harlem Nights" is going to be much more trying on even his most ardent fans. This picture, which Murphy wrote and directed without any credited assistance, is beyond bad — it's narcissistic, misogynistic and extremely mean-spirited.

Worse, it's not funny.

The idea of bringing together three generations of great black comics — Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx — is most appealing. The idea of their coming together for a combination of "The Sting" and "The Cotton Club," set in 1938 New York, is also intriguing.

But Murphy's script isn't in the least bit clever or surprising, his characters are bland and the dialogue is stultifying. As a director, Murphy allows people to stand around and stare at each other for interminable periods of time and moves the entire production at a snail's pace.

The set design and costumes are wonderful, the atmosphere is more Hollywood '30s than real world '30s, but acceptable. Yet there is no snap or energy to any of the so-called action. (It is also rather disconcerting to hear '30s-style characters in an old-fashioned Hollywood-style atmosphere spewing a constant stream of four-letter and 12-letter expletives.)

The story begins with a 7-year-old Murphy working for gambling hall owner Pryor, and in the first scene a wild-eyed gambler threatens them. The gambler is played for laughs, but the scene ends with Murphy-as-a-child shooting the guy in the head.

Twenty years later Murphy is Pryor's adopted son and they are co-owners of an illegal gambling den/dance hall. What little plot there is revolves around mobster Michael Lerner and corrupt cop Danny Aiello trying to take over Pryor and Murphy's establishment.

Along the way Murphy once again demonstrates how he feels about women. He gets into a fist fight with prostitute Della Reese, hits her with a trash can and eventually shoots off one of her little toes. Later he makes love to Lerner's moll (Jasmine Guy) then shoots her because she pulls a gun on him. (He had earlier emptied the gun of its bullets.) And the only other woman of consequence in the cast is a prostitute who pretends to love a man, causing him to leave his wife and children.

This is comedy?

"Harlem Nights" is an amazing failure by a young star who has come too far too fast. Not that Murphy isn't talented — he is tremendously talented. But he's already been infected by "The Jerry Lewis Syndrome," which means he wants to do everything — write, direct, produce and not have anyone tell him when he makes a mistake.

But he is making a mistake. Murphy needs better scripts and a strong director he'll listen to. If his pictures don't improve even his die-hard fans will eventually abandon him.

On the other hand, if "Harlem Nights" becomes a hit, Murphy may really become a monster. Why bother to work at making a film good when a lazy, terrible work still becomes a hit?

"Harlem Nights" is rated R for violence, profanity, vulgarity and sex.