Cinema: Murphy's One-Man Band

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HARLEM NIGHTS Directed and Written by Eddie Murphy

The star gets what may be his best laugh in Harlem Nights before he appears. The moment occurs when Eddie Murphy's name flashes in the credits for the fifth time. This may represent the new Hollywood record for authorial egotism. It is, in any case, three more mentions than Woody Allen requires to state his creative credentials for a truly imaginative comedy and two more than Orson Welles took for his film directorial debut, which was -- let's see, oh, yes -- Citizen Kane.

Can Murphy be kidding? One would certainly like to think so. But the film that follows is so self-destructively primitive in tone and development that it quickly dismisses the possibility that its superstar proprietor may retain any capacity for self-satire. Or, for that matter, self-control or self- criticism.

An attractive idea lurks at the center of this movie: evoke the glamorous, dangerous spirit of after-hours Harlem in the 1930s and do it in the style of a studio-bound gangster film of the time, in which sets, costumes, lighting all impart a dreamily enhancing air to reality. Implicit in this notion is an even better one: bring blacks in from the fringe of the movie's frame, where they were segregated in the old Hollywood, and make them the story's movers and shakers. To that end, Murphy recruited performers he obviously, and justifiably, admires -- Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Della Reese -- and cast them as the management of a club too prosperous for its own good. A powerful white mob is trying to move in on them.

There, however, useful invention ends. The narrative Murphy develops out of this situation is less a homage to a vanished genre than a knock-off of two more recent successes -- The Sting and Prizzi's Honor -- that were funny, but in antithetical, unblendable ways. The movie veers uneasily from not-funny comedy to not-persuasive melodrama. Murphy forgets that the dialogue in old- fashioned crime pictures was as highly stylized as the settings. In place of sharply polished wisecracks, he gives us the steady mutter of the witless, unfelt obscenities that are the argot of our modern mean streets.

But it may be that Murphy's worst idea is his own character. His box-office power having brought Paramount groveling to its knees, offering him any indulgence he wants, Murphy has come to fancy himself a killer, and that is the role he tries to play here: a psychopathic hit man. He is not a good enough actor for this particular assignment, nor has he the skill as writer and director to use cold-blooded murder (three times) as the topper for gag sequences. Once or twice his former sweet hipness glimmers through, and he has written a funny bit for his pal Arsenio Hall, playing a man on a murderous crying jag. But mostly Harlem Nights offers a depressing answer to that not entirely pressing question, "Will success spoil Eddie Murphy?" It looks as if it has.