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'Harlem Nights' :

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 24, 1989


Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy;
Richard Pryor;
Redd Foxx;
Danny Aiello;
Michael Lerner;
Della Reese;
Stari Shaw;
Arsenio Hall
Under 17 restricted

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DOES IT matter to Eddie Murphy whether "Harlem Nights" is good or bad? It doesn't look like it. Perhaps he figured he'd make a killing on this gangster comedy anyway, so why not pal it up with Richard Pryor, Arsenio Hall and Redd Foxx, make sure he's the romantic lead and bray all the way to the bank?

Does it matter to Eddie Murphy fans, or is a Murphy movie a celebration of something else anyway? Will anyone notice, above the inevitable jocularity, that nobody worked too hard on the thing?

One day, among a series of inauthentic soundstages referred to as "Harlem, 1918," Club Sugar Ray co-owners Murphy and stepfather Pryor are threatened by mobster Michael Lerner and on-the-take cop Danny Aiello, who want a big piece of their nightclub action. So hothead Murphy and veteran Pryor come up with an elaborate scam, which involves betting on a big boxing match and dispatching a beautiful whore (newcomer Lela Rochon) to work her talents.

Unfortunately, entertainer-for-life Murphy, directing for the first time, seems to have spent his energies on topping the bill rather than on the bill itself. In this limping vanity production, he works up the meanness to shoot off a woman's toes (Della Reese's) but not the comic spirit to stop it hurting; and with narcissistic aplomb, reduces Foxx to doddering blindness, actress-vocalist Reese to scatological cussing, Hall to an unfunny crying cameo and Pryor, his former idol (and apparently the only comedian in this movie), to double-takes and Murphy-admiring smiles.

Murphy -- whose greatest comedy occurred early in his career, with the Saturday Night Live TV series, "48 HRS." and "Trading Places" -- has seen a steady deterioration of his craft as his riches have soared (Paramount touts a worldwide gross of more than a billion dollars); and much like Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, and other fortressed stars, he has surrounded himself with hangers-on who clamor to congratulate his every concept. It would take incredible strength of character to block out such a sycophantic din. Besides, there's every indication he agrees with his followers completely.

Actually, judging by his graceless comments about women and gays in the appropriately titled "Eddie Murphy Raw" -- and reserving judgment on the casting-couch sexual-harassment suit filed against him earlier this year by fired "Harlem" actress Michael Michelle Williams -- maybe Eddie shouldn't be working so hard in the first place. It's harmful to the general public.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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