Nutty Professor, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Eddie Murphy does not make "comebacks", because, according to him, he hasn't been out of the spotlight. But, following three critical and box-office flops (The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, and Vampire in Brooklyn), Murphy is hoping The Nutty Professor gets his career back on track. Combining his own brand of high-energy comedy with that of Ace Ventura veterans Tom Shadyac and Steve Oederkerk, Murphy is attempting to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And, while the flatulence-joke lovers who flocked to Dumb and Dumber will doubtless be overwhelmed, not to mention doubled-over, by this movie, those hoping for more cerebral humor are destined to be disappointed. The Nutty Professor aims for guffaws at the lowest level -- anyone with a double-digit IQ will get every joke. Whether you laugh at them or not is often more of a matter of taste than a question of having a sense of humor.

Murphy is very funny, giving his most manic, inspired performance in years, and playing no less than seven different roles. Too often, however, the script lets him down. I'll admit to laughing a number of times, but I couldn't help noticing all the squandered opportunities. The Nutty Professor should have been funnier than it is, but, by concentrating on bodily function humor, the film makers have limited Murphy's effectiveness.

This version of The Nutty Professor is loosely based on the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy about a nerd inventing a potion that turns him into a lothario. That story, in turn, was a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's interesting that in the last twelve months, we've seen three interpretations of this story. And, while The Nutty Professor isn't nearly as impressive as Stephen Frears' eerie, atmospheric Mary Reilly, it's infinitely more watchable than 1995's Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde. Curiously, for a tale known best for its horrific elements, none of these movies fits into the traditional horror genre -- two are comedies and the other is a drama.

Murphy plays mild-mannered Sherman Klump, a 400-pound science professor at Wellman College. One day, the gorgeous, willowy Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett) walks through the door to Sherman's classroom and introduces herself as one of his biggest fans. The poor professor is instantly smitten, and embarks on a campaign to shed his extra pounds. Day-after-day, he works out, but an opportunity in his lab presents him with a quicker, easier way to shape up. A serum for re-aligning genetic structure has worked marvels for hamsters, so Sherman decides to become a human subject. Moments after gulping down the light blue contents of a vial, the overweight scientist has been replaced by his svelte, well-toned alternate self, Buddy Love. But, along with Buddy's perfect physique comes a nasty, out-of-control personality.

When it's not concentrating on members of Sherman's family passing gas, belching, or threatening to sneeze all over the dinner table, some of the comedy is cute. For example, in a nightmare sequence where Sherman imagines himself to be King Kong, his goal when reaching through the window of a skyscraper isn't the girl, it's a roast turkey. Among the other memorable sequences are an amusing takeoff on From Here to Eternity and the nicely-choreographed, climactic "battle" between Sherman and Buddy.

There's an underlying message in The Nutty Professor about self-respect and accepting people as they are (oddly, this is the same theme advanced by Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Because Murphy's performance as Sherman makes us care about the character, it's easy to sympathize with his plight. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story, which is the most touching, is skimmed over, presumably because the material is too heavy for a comedy. Worse still, the presence of so many barbed fat jokes makes it easy to suspect The Nutty Professor of conflicted motives.

The visual effects are top-rate, recalling Jim Carrey's The Mask. With the help of makeup guru Rick Baker, Murphy is equally believable as the hulking Sherman, his doddering grandmother, a Richard Simmons look-alike, and the slim-and-trim Buddy Love. It's a tour-de-force for the comic, and that almost makes The Nutty Professor worth seeing. Alas, this movie is a little too interested in easy jokes to bother with having a heart. And, in the end, we're not sure whether we're supposed to be cheering for Sherman or laughing at him.

Nutty Professor, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1996-06-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1