Why You Don't Care About Eddie Murphy

We needed a little time today to digest our feelings after the miserable box-office showing of Meet Dave, whose free-fall over the weekend resulted in the ugliest opening of Eddie Murphy's career. Not having seen it, we have to assume that $5.1 million gross aside, the film is at least superior to Norbit (not to mention Vampire in Brooklyn, Pluto Nash and a sprinkling of other Murphy misfires over the years). We'd even venture to say it'll be better than Beverly Hills Cop IV, the PG-rated abomination to which Murphy and Brett Ratner are attached for Paramount. Certainly it's better than The Love Guru, whose own beleaguered comic icon Mike Myers nevertheless had flowers and a thank-you note on Murphy's porch by sometime Sunday afternoon.

But the knives are out anyway, with at least one impassioned plea calling for Murphy's retirement and another damning rundown of 50 not-impressive films that had higher-grossing opening weekends than Meet Dave (which even our lowball estimate last Friday waaaay overshot). But the scope of the crash-and-burn — not to mention the relative quietude of the backlash — suggests a less-controversial denouement: Nobody cares about Eddie Murphy.

Which isn't to say Murphy is irrelevant. They're different phenomena. He's less than two years removed from his Oscar-nominated performance in Dreamgirls — a performance for which he was a 50-50 shot right up to the point when Rachel Weisz opened the envelope. And you don't need us to revive the rap that some argue kept him off the stage: A surly, studio-hating, tranny-whore-patronizing, Norbit-starring, paycheck-cashing boor. But one who, as junkie bandleader James "Thunder" Early, restored older viewers' faith in Murphy as a dynamic screen actor.

The fat suits and multiple personalities he'd adopted since Coming to America (bludgeoning the form to death in the Nutty Professor films and eventually Norbit) called greater attention to the range of his early comic work. As a throwback to Murphy's predatory live act — on TV, in concert and in movies — it was that much easier to see what culture had lost. It was even easier to see what replaced it: A crowd-pleaser for hire in an era when crowd-pleasers no longer transcend media. There can only be so many, and they can only last so long.

Why You Don't Care About Eddie Murphy

Considering Murphy's big-screen longevity — 26 years this December — his downturn signals anything but irrelevance. More than any recent bust by Myers or Jim Carrey, Meet Dave's disastrous showing owes less to Murphy's presence than to Fox's miscalculation of what that presence means. This is important. The half of the so-called marketing quadrants that made Norbit a hit — men and women under 25 — weren't there to see Eddie Murphy. They were there for the Trick — the concept, the execution, the ease of it all, however crude, stupid and condescending. Basically, they were there for the movie part of it. They weren't yet born when Murphy was Murphy; they didn't know any mighty had fallen, nor from how far up.

Fox counted on that perspective, however, in foisting "Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave" — even if Murphy was too far gone for our liking, he had proven reliable enough for a few of the studio's recent family romps. Right? Doctor Doolittle? Right? Maybe our kids would dig it, while we barely tolerated it for their sake, and, by summer dog-days extension, for our own.

Except "our" kids don't care. They've got better things to do. And we don't care that they don't care. And we don't care that the millions of others who don't care (their numbers reflect indirectly in Meet Dave's box-office trough) don't care either. All we feel is sort of a relief at no longer having to pretend to care — no more calling for Murphy's head or lamenting his choices. That it should happen to such a household name reinforces only its novelty, not its unlikelihood; actors are forgotten and disused all the time. Eddie Murphy's indelibility is his only entitlement; he's achieved that much, Oscar losses and all.

His value, though? His very place? Gone. And this is us, shrugging.