In 1996’s The Nutty Professor, itself a remake of Jerry Lewis’ split-personality classic, Eddie Murphy seemed to exorcise his old, brash persona (in the form of the vicious Buddy Love) and embrace a new, egoless approach to comedy. Covered in latex, he seemed more present, more himself, than he had in years. It felt like more than a comeback; it felt as though Murphy had torched the first half of his career and risen from the ashes, fake flab and all. Murphy’s choices since then (Dr. Dolittle, Holy Man, Bowfinger) have been hit or miss, but at least he hasn’t regressed to the aggressive shtick that worked in the ’80s and then, quite abruptly, stopped working.
The main thing wrong with Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, which otherwise isn’t a bad movie, is that Buddy Love is back. The portly professor Sherman Klump, it seems, still hasn’t eradicated all traces of Buddy — his lust, his nastiness — from his consciousness; indeed, we see that Buddy is actually part of Sherman’s DNA. Sherman is about to marry a lovely colleague (Janet Jackson), and he wants Buddy out of his system. Inevitably, the process of isolating and removing the “Buddy gene” goes awry, and Buddy surfaces as a separate, physical entity who torments Sherman and plots to steal Sherman’s newly developed youth serum. Buddy keeps popping up, getting more tiresome each time he brays in our faces. We agree with Sherman: Buddy is an irritant in Sherman’s life and in the movie, too.
Perhaps the reason Murphy plays Sherman so sensitively and well, especially in the scenes in both movies when Sherman is down on himself, is that Murphy is well-acquainted with self-hatred. After all, Buddy, who looks pretty much like Eddie Murphy, is the most obnoxious person in the film. Disappearing inside Rick Baker’s makeup to play not only Sherman but (almost) his entire family, Murphy can do characters; he can act. (Recall, too, how he changed his appearance for Bowfinger.) I think he knows that “Eddie Murphy” is limited to a certain type of suave role. In disguise, he can cut loose and, within this farcical context, dabble in serious acting.
Consider the scenes with the Klump family gathered around the table or the TV. Very quickly, you stop looking for the seams that enable Eddie Murphy as Papa Klump to interact with Eddie Murphy as Mama Klump. Each performance is so thoroughly distinct, each character so subtly drawn, that it’s not hard at all to suspend disbelief and imagine you’re watching a real family played by a variety of actors. This isn’t just make-up gimmickry; Murphy uses Rick Baker’s immense talents as a tool to burrow into character, to become someone else, on the inside as well as the outside. When, as Sherman, he acts opposite Janet Jackson, he displays a gentle, bashful ardor he wouldn’t be able to pull off as “Eddie Murphy.”
The movie itself is pretty crass. We spend a little too much time watching the randy Granny Klump haplessly trying to seduce the revolted Buddy (the moment doesn’t have the comeuppance zing that it should; the audience retches along with Buddy). There are the usual scatalogical jokes — a few of which, I have to admit, made me laugh (there’s a quick, wicked scene that trashes 2001, Star Wars, and Armageddon all at once) — and a show-stopper featuring a giant hamster whose amorous attentions focus on the unfortunate Larry Miller. But any movie in which Eddie Murphy can play reconciliation scenes not only with Janet Jackson but with himself (Papa and Mama have a falling-out over Papa’s use of the youth serum), and make each one feel believable, isn’t to be dismissed lightly.
When he plays the Klumps in full force, it’s as if Murphy were eagerly showing us the comic genius and acting range that went untapped for years, like a one-note musician who suddenly stumbled upon the freedom to try a variety of instruments, and turned out to play them all like a virtuoso. If this has to happen in a crude comedy aimed mainly at adolescents, that’s a compromise I’m willing to accept.