They're up to something big.
On paper it seems like a good idea. Take young funny man Eddie Murphy and pair him up with the previous generation's number one African-American comedian (Richard Pryor) and add one of the previous, previous generation's top African-American comedians (Redd Foxx) and the laughs will just roll off the screen. Right?
Facts of the Case
Sugar Ray (Pryor—The Toy, Stir Crazy) runs a Prohibition Era "after hours" club in Harlem that fronts as a candy store. Quick (Murphy—Shrek, The Nutty Professor) is his adopted son and right hand man. Life is good for these two and the money is flowing in, but this is all put into jeopardy when a rival gangster, Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner—Godzilla), decides the club is making too much money and he demands a piece of the action. Bugsy sets crooked police officer Phil Cantone (Danny Aiello—The Professional) after Sugar Ray to make sure the proper "tribute" is paid. Quick wants to put up a fight, but Sugar Ray decides its best to pick up and move out of Harlem, but first they're going to make Bugsy pay big time.
Utilizing a championship heavyweight fight and a plot that's been used in just about every other gangster movie, Quick and Sugar Ray look to make a killing on a dirty bet. In order to get out of Harlem alive, though, they're going to need to allude Bugsy's goons, a revenge-minded call girl, and Cantone himself.
There was a time when a brash young star named Eddie Murphy was one of the funniest guys in film. Seriously. But something went horribly awry after the first Beverly Hills Cop became a big hit and Eddie stopped being funny. There was a string of very unfunny movies that included The Golden Child, Beverly Hills Cop II (which, according to Mike Jackson, doomed Judge Reinhold's career), and the nauseating Coming to America. I'm not sure what prompted Eddie to write Harlem Nights (yes, he wrote it) and I'm really not sure what prompted Eddie to direct Harlem Nights (yes, he directed it, too) but I'm really confused as to what prompted Paramount to allow him to do these things.
"Hey, Eddie's a big star and wants to do this movie. He has no writing or directing experience and all he wants is several million dollars."
Of course, I'd have been escorted out of the office by surly security guards if I'd come up with this proposition.
For someone who should understand comedy the way someone like Murphy has made a career out of it, you would think that Harlem Nights would be a funny movie. Comedy is about timing and Murphy was, at one point, one of the best. The biggest problem with Harlem Nights is the lack of timing on just about every gag, with each laugh-getter being strung out too long so as to render it unfunny. It was like watching the last skit on a broadcast of Saturday Night Live that ran on for two hours too long. This isn't helped by all of the big gags in the movie just not being funny in premise. Here are some examples:
• Bennie (Redd Foxx—TV's Sanford & Son) is running a craps game but he can't see because he's not wearing his glasses. (Hilarious!)
• Quick loses a fistfight with Vera (Della Reese—Dinosaur) and shoots off her pinky toe. (Funny!)
• A boxer has a horrible speech impediment. (Comedic!)
• A gangster (Arsenio Hall—Coming to America) discovers his brother's been killed and can't stop crying even while trying to kill Quick. (Hysterical!)
• Bennie's pet parrot drops F-Bombs. (Original!)
• Bennie drops F-Bombs. (Okay, old people swearing is funny—but not funny enough in this case.)
When we start to look at the acting, we begin to see a definite picture begin to emerge with the problems with Harlem Nights, with the biggest problem being Murphy himself. Murphy mugs too much for his own camera for his own good, and pretty much sticks to the shtick that made him famous—his fast talking demeanor and his trademark laugh. The former is out of place in a '30s period piece (especially considering the '80s-style slang) and the latter gets really annoying after the first 15 minutes of the film. By the time this was filmed Pryor, sadly, was pretty much a shell of his former self and it shows in the sense that he's not nearly as animated here as in other efforts. Redd Foxx manages okay, but there's not really any difference between his Bennie character and his character on Sanford & Son, with the exception of the overuse of vulgarities. The rest of the cast tries, but there's just no script to work with. Arsenio Hall, on the other hand, needs to be singled out for being absolutely atrocious in a bit role. He cries and screams incessantly about his brother's death and how he's going to kill Quick. The mute button could not be found fast enough.
As far as the transfer goes, I can't really say that Paramount has done a terrific job in bringing Harlem Nights to DVD, because I'd be lying if I did. The entire transfer is affected by a pervasive graininess that causes a massive amount of the color to wash out. The soundtrack was ineffectively expanded to a 5.1 channel soundtrack, and as such it sounds flat. There's not a whole lot in this movie that takes advantage of a decent home theater system. As far as the extras go you'll have to settle for a pretty crummy trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
People who know me realize that I do not get offended very easily, and there was nothing in Harlem Nights that offended me considering the overuse of a certain word beginning with "F" that Murphy has used throughout his career. I have no problem with the word being in a film and, frankly, it's a word I use more often than I should. The problem I have here is that characters in Harlem Nights say it as though the word itself is supposed to be funny. News flash—it isn't unless you're eight. As far as offensiveness goes, I'm more offended that this movie was made in the first place.
I would recommend Harlem Nights to you but I'd feel bad for doing so. I'd rather remove my own spleen without the luxury of anesthesia, surgical implements, or the "Time-Life Books: Guide to Home Spleen Removal" than sit through this one again.
Paramount is guilty of not keeping this turkey locked away in their vault, of providing a sub-par transfer and overall package, and charging its customers a premium price point for it. (Don't think for a moment I didn't notice that last part.)
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