Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 27, 2004)
If one wanted to establish when Eddie Murphy “jumped the shark”, we’d have to look back to the fall of 1985. After a string of hits between 1982 and 1984, we found Murphy as an enormous movie star. He then proceeded to put out a pop album called How Could It Be, one that featured the execrable, highly mockable tune “Party All the Time” as its lead single.
I honestly don’t remember how the record sold; I don’t think it did all that well, but I also don’t believe it tanked terribly. Nonetheless, it quickly became an embarrassment, and its ego-driven existence started to fuel Murphy’s other endeavors. In 1986, he made his first movie since the huge success of 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop with The Golden Child, an action fantasy that saw Murphy as a heroic “chosen one”.
Yes, fame and success had gotten to Murphy’s head, a fact that got rammed home even farther with the late 1987 release of Raw, a concert film. Happily, Murphy didn’t force us to listen to his strained singing in Raw, as he went back to his stand-up comic roots for this performance. However, the content demonstrated how much he’d changed over the prior few years.
Over the course of the show, Murphy riffs on a number of topics. The movie starts with a prologue that takes place during Thanksgiving of 1968. There we see actors as Murphy’s extended family as the kids put on an after dinner talent show. Eventually little Eddie (Deon Richmond) comes on and does some off-color material that foreshadows his adult work.
From there we jump to then-present day in New York City for the concert performance itself. After a few gushing chats with fans, we head to the show itself. Much of the content deals with his life as a celebrity. He discusses the threats he receives related to prior performances; apparently both celebrities he mocked and gays didn’t like his gags. Murphy also does an extended routine about how Bill Cosby chastised him for his rampant use of profanity.
For the show’s final third, Murphy mostly gets into race and violence. He riffs on how poorly white people dance as well as fights into which he’s gotten. He also gives a good segment about the humiliation of the homemade hamburger when all the other kids have McDonald’s. The performance ends with a long bit about his father’s behavior while inebriated.
In between, Murphy devotes an extended segment to the subject of women. He talks about sex in the Eighties, relationships, and love and money. These elements comprise the majority of the concert.
I saw Raw during its theatrical run and thought it was about half of a funny movie. I felt it started and ended well, but that the parts in between could be painful. I still think that way, as the movie occasionally almost grinds to a halt during Murphy’s venomous take on women.
Make no mistake: Raw is an angry movie in general. Rage infuses almost every part of Murphy’s routine. Even the seemingly gentler moments such as the childhood reminiscence of the hamburgers seethes with barely-hidden resentment. Most comedy comes from pain, so the film’s tone shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Murphy in Raw seems particularly volatile.
During the movie’s first and final segments, Murphy generally makes the anger work for him. For instance, you can tell he maintains some bitterness toward his father’s drinking, but he turns the segment into something so creative and clever that it works. Murphy does seem tremendously self-assured throughout the show. Of course, he meticulously prepared for the concert, but it all comes across as off-the-cuff and spontaneous. It’s remarkable to see him work and know that he had to keep all of those gags and transitions in his head.
It’s interesting to hear Murphy discuss his status as a star. Usually comedians avoid that form of acknowledgement, for such confirmation makes it difficult for them to connect with the average person. Once you admit you’re not Joe Six-Pack, it becomes tougher to get the audience to relate to you. Murphy ably strides both worlds. He can tell us the problems of celebrity but still remind us of average Eddie.
On the negative side, Murphy does seem awfully full of himself. He comes out on stage like a rock star in a ridiculously affected way; somehow I can’t imagine Jack Benny - or even Richard Pryor - strutting out in a similar manner. And don’t even get me started on Murphy’s absurd leather suit.
Raw’s biggest flaw remains that middle segment that gets into women. I can’t begrudge Murphy some of his bitterness toward the fairer sex, as I’m sure his status and fame attracted many manipulative and dishonest females. He perseverates on the ways women will use men, and obviously a lot of this attitude comes from experience.
If only he’d leavened the gags with some vague sense of affection, it might’ve worked. However, the amount of bile Murphy spews as he warns about all the “bitches” out there reaches remarkable levels. Occasionally Murphy expresses negativity towards men, but not to anywhere near the same level. For example, he cracks on men for cheating but then turns around the thread to make their actions almost seem justified; he reverses the female attitudes he earlier lampooned to give men the upper hand.
I won’t say that some of Murphy’s jokes in this segment aren’t funny, for the show continues to muster some laughs. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of bitterness outweighs any positives. Murphy’s venom makes these elements almost painful to watch at times.
That sense of anger makes Raw less than successful as a whole. At its best, the movie presents some very funny moments, but it also bristles for long stretches with resentment and bile. This one probably should be left for Murphy’s biggest fans, as it’s too inconsistent for me to recommend it to less devoted folks.