"Oi nyhtes tou Harlem" (1989): A MOVIE REVIEW
by Dane Youssef
"When an actor asks you to read his script, your heart sinks. The number of scripts I've been given by actors that are so unbelievably terrible! It's well known that actors are lousy writers." --Richard E. Grant.
Words to live by. Especially in Hollywood.
I was kind of looking forward to this one. I enjoy Eddie Murphy and I love it when a star hand-makes a vehicle for themselves or when someone who writes decides to mark their own directorial debut. But when the star's head gets too big for the rest of his body, there's always a danger of a big-budgeted Hollywood vanity production.
Will the filmmaker keep it real… or will he just waste amounts of money (the studio's and ours) and time (the studio's, our and his own) patting himself on the back for an hour in a half? Sadly, it's the latter here.
Another thing I really like is when someone breathes new and fresh life into an exhausted and dried-out genre. None of that here. The warring nightclub movies have become so worn-through that even the parodies of it are dreary and done to death.
Murphy does neither. He does the most clichéd: He plugs into a routine conventional formula gangster picture and plays it as seriously as if it were "The Godfather." It's like a script where the next draft, they put in the jokes and the new ideas. But it seems like someone with clout just looked at it and went: "No… this is fine."
Probably Murphy. He is credited all over this. In the opening shot of beautiful white satin sheets, his name headlines across the credits about five times.
THE PLOT? A young orphan saves Pryor's life one night at his nightclub and after finding out how handy this kid is, Pryor figures he needs not only some company, but some degree of family, he adopts the little ragamuffin.
20 years later, Pryor's dump has become a first-class posh nightclub scene. They're pulling down big money and a gangster wants their action. He's even got a dirty cop in his employ. But Pryor comes up with a scheme, a la "THE STING."
Murphy's screenplay plays like an unfinished first-draft that nobody had the pair to call him on. The actors aren't really allowed to stand-out much, if at all. Even the almighty Murphy seems to be on auto-pilot.
Pryor shows class and gentlemanly manners as Sugar Ray (perhaps it would have been better to name his character BROWN Sugar Ray—further evidence that this one needed a polish), but everyone here is basically just on vacation.
The Oscar-nomination the movie received is richly deserved (Joe I. Tompkins' Best Costume Design), but the production values are the only part that makes the '30's feel authentic.
Some sets look somewhat fake, but this is supposed to be a comedy of sorts. It's rare one movie gets nominated for both a Razzie and an Oscar (unless it's one of Lucas' new "Star Wars" chapters).
It's 1938 and everyone is talking like it's 1988, particularly the comedians. This is a prehistoric white man's formula. And with all these black comedians and satirists, you expect them to skewer the genre or at least bring new life to it. Nope. Murphy is pretty much just coasting here.
The great Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly when he remarked in his review: "Murphy approaches his story more as a costume party in which everybody gets to look great while fumbling through a plot that has not been fresh since at least 1938."
Jasmine Guy is perfectly cast and seems to be indulging herself in her role and Michael Lerner has all the looks, evil and mannerisms of the prototypical mob boss down pat. And there are moments where Pryor gives you an idea of what a more interesting leader and authority figure would sound like. He gives every scene he's in a feeling of dignity.
Would it have been too much to ask that Della Resse sing? Or at least quit embarrassing herself with all her "Kiss My Ass talk?"
And the late Redd Foxx doesn't get to leave much of a swan song here. He has some back-and-forth with Resse which could have been some great stuff. Nope. Murphy wastes another opportunity again here.
Murphy's Quick is charismatic and likable. But those moments are few and far between for sure. Murphy has never looked better and never been duller. His character made me laugh twice throughout the whole movie.
Stan Shaw's boxer with a horrible speech impediment isn't just painful and embarrassing, it's annoying. There's more to comedy than simply showing something taboo and offensive. You have to incorporate some kind of light touch and funny situation. Watching him strain even the some of the easiest words just makes us feel sorry for him and annoyed with Murphy.
Can Murphy write a good screenplay? Well… there was "Raw," but that was really stand-up material. He wrote the outline for "Boomerang" and "Coming to America" for sure. But he didn't have the last word there.
Does Murphy think he's a writer? I don't mean a great writer. I mean a writer--period. Maybe a team of ER-like script doctors could've revived this one.
Murphy's direction is so slow and quiet, you'd swear he was asleep at the wheel some of the time. He has too many static shots and doesn't seem to know how to build and release suspense. On some level, I think Quick is the real Eddie Murphy. Angry, young, hot-headed and ambitious. But occasionally charming. Now if he were only funny sometime.
There's a scene in which Murphy has a femme fatale in bed who plans to make love with him and kill him. You can probably guess how it turns out. Like everything else in the movie, this could have been better, but…
"Surprisingly," Murphy has not directed another movie since (he got a Razzie nomination). And he no longer writes the finished draft for his films either (he WON the Razzie for writing this!)
It's great to look at and the music is beautiful, and there are a few really nice scenes. But that just falls under the category of "gems among all the junk." Not enough of them.
Could've been. Shouldv'e been. Wasn't.
--For Those Beautiful Dark Nights in Black Harlem, Dane Youssef