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* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Robert Townsend
Written by Eddie Murphy
With Eddie Murphy.
Eddie Murphy’s new concert film, Raw, has one of those titles that rebound cruelly on their creators. No doubt Murphy and his handlers used “raw” to mean uncensored and unvarnished, hyping the notoriously scatological and obscene Murphy you can’t see on free TV. You do get that Murphy in this film; in fact, he makes so many profane references that he feels called upon to discuss them as part of his act. However, profanity is a pretty unremarkable quality these days; the country’s preoccupation with expletives probably having crested with the Nixon tapes a decade ago, Murphy’s obscenity seems more quaint than offensive. No, the rawness of Eddie Murphy is the unfinished kind–unripened, unseasoned, even puerile.
More than anything else, Murphy comes across as pathetic, a terminally undeveloped child forever seeking a shortcut to adulthood. The little vignette that opens the film features an episode–supposedly drawn from Murphy’s childhood–in which he shocked his family and their friends by telling an extended scatological joke. This kind of confessional reference to the source of one’s humor is supposed to have a disarming effect, but it almost never works satisfactorily. (Richard Pryor’s nonconcert films, for example, can be read largely as emotional autobiographies, yet virtually all of them are artistic failures.) This doesn’t mean there can’t be noteworthy revelations in such references, and Murphy does find some in the only person who laughs at his younger self’s dirty joke. The shocked silence of the grown-ups is disturbed by the chucklings of the one hipster among them, a stereotypical street type incongruously placed in a middle-class setting. This is obviously the type that Murphy wants to please: the one adult who combines the license of age with the irresponsibility of youth.
Make no mistake, Murphy is out to please. This desire to cater to a group is masked by what is now the commonplace persona of the truth-telling comic, a role whose modern guise emerged with Lenny Bruce in the 50s and reached its zenith with Pryor (and encompasses performers like Mort Sahl, Paul Krassner, and George Carlin). However, though it’s an honorable enough tradition as far as it goes (and an ancient one for that matter; as Carlin has pointed out, it goes back at least to medieval court fools), it’s easily corrupted and trivialized. Joan Rivers, for example, one of the Reagans’ house sycophants, has invoked Bruce as her model. In the same way–and just as misleadingly–Murphy invokes Pryor. In one routine, Murphy, an extremely gifted mimic, relates two phone conversations, one with Bill Cosby in which the self-appointed guardian of public decency tells Murphy to clean up his act, and another in which Pryor tells him to keep on doing what he’s doing. It’s a moderately funny bit, and the implicit message is not hard to find: Murphy is declaring he is on the side of the caustic, critical outsider, Pryor, as opposed to the conformist, polite Cosby.
But who are the outsiders Murphy talks about? For the most part, gays and women–neither of whom comes off well. In fact, in a performance that strives to shock through language, the biggest shock is the depth of Murphy’s reactionary attitude toward gay men and straight women. His mimicry of gay speech and facial expressions is analagous to an Amos ‘n’ Andy routine, in which white men buffooned their way through incredibly demeaning impersonations of black men. At least Murphy seems to have met some gay people: the proof’s in how well he describes their hostility toward him. Women are another matter.
The middle section of Raw is devoted to Murphy’s observations on romance, marriage, and sex, and it is an unbelievable performance–literally. This is Murphy at his most jejune. He kicks off his off-kilter remarks on marriage by mentioning an article in the National Enquirer on Johnny Carson’s divorce settlement. This bit of matrimonial scripture forms the basis of all the jokes to come–which reveals something truly awful about Murphy. For one thing, he’s stealing another comedian’s routine: Johnny Carson has long used his own divorces as joke material. Worse, Murphy apparently believes what the Enquirer says, and, what’s sillier, builds a whole worldview on it. Murphy spends considerable time joking about community property laws and claiming that all a rich woman has to do is “fuck her husband” for a living. This could be funny if it was the remark of some rich comic divorcee, delivered with at least a trace of irony. But Murphy seems to think that this is profound. It’s like listening to a vulgar parvenu.
When Murphy talks about more ordinary sexual relationships, he still doesn’t refer much to his own experience, preferring to project his ideas onto members of the audience. He gives sexual prowess and infidelity an aura of hipness and then insists that these are characteristics of his audience, ascribing to them the virtues a 10-year-old might enviously ascribe to 16-year-olds–all of which is a calculated bit of ass kissing. This is the vital center of Murphy’s material; everything revolves around these desperate efforts of a child to be a teenager and to live out teenage fantasies. Thus the film contains footage of Murphy arriving at the concert hall–New York’s Felt Forum–in a stretch limousine, and the camera teases us with tiny glimpses of Murphy’s shoes and legs before granting us the privilege of a view of the star’s full figure. The concert itself opens with Murphy’s silhouette outlined against a curtain, and when it goes up Murphy is revealed dressed in a skintight leather suit. About halfway through the concert, Murphy casually opens the coat to reveal his bare chest to squealing audience approval. This posing is the film’s comic highpoint.
What makes the film disappointing is that Murphy does occasionally show flashes of real humor, particularly in a closing bit about his father that combines wit and pathos. It’s one of the few times Murphy talks about something he obviously has experience with.
The film’s direction is so rudimentary it’s only barely worth mentioning. Robert Townsend, fresh from the success of Hollywood Shuffle, shoots the entire concert from essentially three camera angles, heavily favoring one straight-on position that features Murphy from the chest up. In other words, it is just conventional TV-style shooting. Which is appropriate, I guess, for a comedian who seems to get most of his ideas about life from the mass media.