erik lundegaard

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The Nutty Professor (1996)

The Nutty Professor doesn't believe enough in its own message to follow it.

Written by:
Jerry Lewis
Bill Richmond
David Sheffield
Barry W. Blaustein
Tom Shadyac
Steve Oedekerk

Directed by:
Tom Shadyac

Starring:
Eddie Murphy
Jada Pinkett
James Coburn
Larry Miller
David Chappelle
John Ales

Academy Awards:
Best Make-Up

In this remake of the 1962 Jerry Lewis comedy, Eddie Murphy, with the help of make-up effects whiz Rick Baker, plays Sherman Klump, an affable, 400-pound professor of genetics. Sherman is a put-upon man. He is in danger of losing his job. His family is combative, gross and flatulent (and all of them, at a dinner table get-together, are played by Eddie Murphy). He cannot lose weight to save his life. And he is newly infatuated with a graduate student named Carla Purty (Jada Pinckett). When he takes her out on a date, though, he winds up frontrow center as the butt of a scathing comedian's fat jokes.

At the same time he's invented a way of altering a person's genetic code so that, say, a fat person can be made thin. Of course he uses it. And of course he turns into the obnoxious Eddie Murphy we all know and love. All the better, he thinks, to woo Miss Purty.

You pretty much know what's going to happen from then on. There's a Jeckyl-Hyde battle between the obnoxious thin man (rechristened Buddy Love) and the affable fat man, and, in the end, the affable fat man wins, and humbly admits to everyone his subterfuge and the error of his ways. He shouldn't have tried to change himself through science; he should have tried to change himself through hard work. Miss Purty comes through by liking the chunky professor more than the thin Buddy Love. The college gets its grant. Yadda yadda.

What makes this movie effective despite the cliches is Eddie Murphy. In the original Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis played a geek who is transformed into a Dean Martin-ish Casanova, and it's the geek who gets the laughs; the Casanova is just slick. The opposite occurs here. When Buddy Love is released from the fat man's body, he's a comic whirlwind. When Eddie plays the fat man, he's effective, gentle and terribly moving. At the nightclub, when the comedian keeps cutting into him with fat joke after fat joke, and the professor's affable grin fades, and the camera closes in on his face, revealing his vulnerability and helplessness, it's one of the most heart-rending moments in recent film. Murphy is so sympathetic as the professor, so gentlemanly, you understand why Miss Purty would choose him. Everyone else in the picture is just a clown.

But the movie doesn't realize this. It condemns the scathing comedian's fat jokes but makes a host of its own. The opening sequence, where escaped hamsters run amuck on a college campus and wind up a) in a girl's sandwich, b) in a rich dowager's mouth, and c) up a boy's pantleg (where it is mistaken for genatalia), could have been lifted straight from the worst of '80s teen flicks.

Meanwhile the scatalogical jokes seem to last forever and the fat jokes never end. These are too crude surroundings in which find our gentlemanly Professor.

—April 24, 1997

© 1999 Erik Lundegaard