The continued success of Eddie Murphy is a mystery that has puzzled scientists for centuries. Sure, he’s talented. He was funny during his “Saturday Night Live” stint — and not funny in the way that people remember early “SNL” seasons as being funnier than they were, but actually funny. He then had some terrific film successes with “48 Hrs.,” “Trading Places,” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” The problem? Those were his first movies, and he made them 25 years ago.
Since then? Eh, it’s hit or miss, mostly miss. For every “Coming to America” there’s a “Holy Man.” For every “Golden Child” there’s a “Vampire in Brooklyn.” For every Oscar-nomination-for-“Dreamgirls” there’s a being-pulled-over-with-a-transvestite-hooker-in-your-car. Apart from his work in animated films, almost everything in which he has starred in the last decade has been awful.
The mystery part is that no matter how bad his films are, they almost always do well at the box office. “The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” “Daddy Day Care,” “Norbit” — heaven help us, NORBIT — they were all hits. Are we as a nation so enthralled by Eddie Murphy’s antics that we will watch literally anything he stars in, no matter how excremental it is?
I am pleased to report that the dismal failure of “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” in 2002 suggests that there are, thankfully, exceptions to Murphy’s otherwise Svengali-like hold over us. It’s not like me to gloat over people’s failures, but at the same time, yes it is. In fact, it’s exactly like me. I don’t even know why I said it wasn’t.
“Pluto Nash” came from a script that had been passed around like a transvestite hooker from one Hollywood executive to another throughout the 1980s and ’90s before finally landing in the lap of someone at Castle Rock. For some reason, that person read the script and said, “Let’s spend $100 million to bring this turd to life!” The turd-vivification funds were accessed, the film was shot in the summer of 2000 … and then it sat on the shelf until August 2002, when it was finally released. It made $4 million at the box office. That’s a net loss of $96 million. Do you have any idea how many transvestite hookers you can get with that kind of money?
The irony is that “Pluto Nash” is not even the worst film Eddie Murphy has made. I mean, it’s bad, yeah — but it’s no “Norbit.” (Then again, how could it be? The nice thing about “Norbit,” for Eddie Murphy, is that as long as it’s on his record, he can never do anything worse.) The special effects are actually pretty good — which, for $100 million, they ought to be. The problem is with the awful screenplay that went through a hundred rewrites, and with the sleepwalking performances from pretty much everyone involved. It’s like they knew they were making an epic failure and didn’t see any reason to exert themselves. (See also: George Bush’s speechwriters; Britney Spears’ choreographers; Jeremy Piven’s hairpiece manufacturer.)
The setting is the moon in the 2080s. Mankind has colonized the place and turned it basically into Las Vegas, which sounds about right. Pluto Nash (Murphy) is a devil-may-care former smuggler who now runs a successful nightclub named after himself: Club Han Solo Rip-off. No, just kidding. Club Pluto. One night an organized-crime boss named Rex Crater sends some of his goons to make an offer to buy the place. The offer is $10 million. Pluto says no, he loves the club too much, and it’s always hoppin’. So the goons make a counter-offer of blowing the club up and trying to kill Pluto. The goons drive a hard bargain.
Now Pluto is on the run from Rex Crater (whom no one has ever seen) while also trying to figure out how to retaliate against him. He is accompanied by Dina (Rosario Dawson), the new waitress he just hired, and Bruno (Randy Quaid), his humanoid robot bodyguard. And if the movie was sounding like it might sort of be OK up to this point, I assume the mention of Randy Quaid as a humanoid robot bodyguard applied the brakes to that line of thinking. Randy Quaid has given a lot of memorable performances in his career, but this one is memorable for the wrong reasons. The embarrassment he suffered when he stumbled on Ennis and Jack goin’ at it in “Brokeback Mountain” is probably karmic retribution for the embarrassment he caused people who saw him in “Pluto Nash,” talking in a robot voice and walking around robotically and just generally making an ass of himself.
One of the problems with the film is that it’s not funny, which is always a liability for a comedy. Another problem is that when it stops trying to be funny, and focuses on sci-fi adventure instead, it’s not interesting or exciting. There are high-speed chases and some explosions, but nothing you haven’t seen before, and with better characters and wittier repartee. Besides, this is the kind of sci-fi film where the flying cars have to get a running start before they can jump over canyons. The flying cars, mind you. In other words, this is the kind of sci-fi film that is stupid.
Late in the film, Pluto and Dina and Bruno want to talk to a Vegas-style singer named Tony Francis (Jay Mohr), who’s an old friend of Pluto’s. They ask the guy at the desk where Tony’s dressing room is, and the guy says he can’t give out that information. So they buy tickets to his show instead. Then, after the show, the turn up at Tony’s dressing room, unescorted and unguided. Apparently, merely buying seats to the performance endowed them with knowledge of where Tony’s dressing room was. But I wonder: Does that knowledge come with all tickets? Or do you have to specify, “I’d like the seats where, after I’ve sat there for two hours, I automatically know where the performer changes clothes”? What if the entertainer uses a different dressing room one night? Does the extra-sensory transfer of information automatically switch to the new location, or must it be done manually by someone at the front office?
Oh: Pam Grier shows up for exactly one scene as Pluto Nash’s mother. Later, she calls him on the phone. She is never heard from or referred to again. She serves no purpose in the story. It reminds me of the time that someone I was dating dared me to squeeze the word “ambidextrous” into a newspaper column I was writing, just to see if I could do it. I assume Pam Grier’s presence in “Pluto Nash” is the result of a similar dare. Probably not from the same person, though. That would be weird if the “Pluto Nash” director and I were drawing from the same dating pool.
By the way, the director is named Ron Underwood. I don’t feel like talking about him, though. His movie probably didn’t deserve to do as badly as it did. I know I’ve seen far worse films that made far more money than this one. A certain film whose title rhymes with “Blorbit” comes to mind.
Finally, if you are an avid Eddie Murphy fan, you are probably wondering: Does Eddie play multiple characters in “Pluto Nash”? And the answer is yes, of course he does. He plays a clone of Pluto Nash. That’s reasonable, given the futuristic setting, but he would have found a way regardless. Eddie Murphy could star in a film where he’s the last surviving human in the universe, and he’d still find a way to play multiple roles. He’d turn up as a jive-talking fire hydrant, or a family of flatulent raccoons, or something. Actually, I would watch that movie. Let’s throw a hundred million dollars at the idea and see what sticks!