The Klumps Showcases the Best Actor in America; Techine's Poetic Alice and Martin
Time has come for everyone to recognize Eddie Murphy's great acting talent. Nutty Professor II: The Klumps showcases Murphy in the most daring multiple-character act since Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and Lolita, but Murphy's even more accomplished. He plays a wide range of ages and the personalities?university scientist Sherman Klump, Mama and Papa Klump, big brother Ernie, Granny Klump and Sherman's alter ego Buddy Love?are thoroughly distinct. Murphy makes each character funny in the kind of specific, imaginative ways that actors usually spend entire careers pursuing. Sherman's rotund gentleman differs from Papa's dyspeptic middle-aged blue-collar worker, which is quite unlike Ernie's bluffing street tough. And Mama displays a particular ladylike manner contrasting Granny's randy aggression.
Biology is this movie's big theme and rich joke. It's what Murphy explores?getting into the nitty-gritty of physical resemblance and the mystery of family temperament. With affable thoroughness, The Klumps transcends the belittling stereotypes that previously limited black performers' expressive potential in mainstream culture. Since the 19th-century minstrel shows, ethnic comedians have been responsible for embodying the diversity of their personal familiar communities and then presenting it to a larger outside world. As a late-20th-century whippersnapper on Saturday Night Live, Murphy joined that tradition, doing his share of black pop-culture parodies (continued in his multiple-role slickness in Coming to America). But The Klumps enhances the ethnic comedian's duty by the way Murphy fulfills a deeper obligation; he gets to characterize a family, not just a collection of pop stereotypes. The nuances he chooses?Mama stepping into a spray of perfume, Papa retreating to his debonair youth, Granny acting out her prerogatives of lust and age?are all recognizable and satisfying. Certainly the screenwriters get some credit for family consistency, but what coheres these roles is Murphy's amazing imagination and skill.
Until now it was possible to undervalue, or misperceive, Murphy's talent. The huge potential he demonstrated in the movies that made him a star (48 HRS, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop) seemed only to make people laugh. Without sacrificing that gift, his assaying several generations of the Klump lineage realizes his potential to make people understand. Whether portraying Sherman's anachronistic chap (a throwback to a type of mannerly black male before the hiphop era) or Granny's profane sage (returning Moms Mabley to her roots, but not quite domesticating her), Murphy uses the Nutty Professor series to create his most multidimensional and memorable film characters. No black comic performer has done anything comparable since Redd Foxx on tv's Sanford & Son. In the movies not even Richard Pryor was able to find a plausible character; to make an impression, he had to break genre with 1979's Live in Concert. (Against the critical consensus then extolling Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, Pauline Kael chose Pryor, telling columnist Arthur Bell, "Honey, that's the best acting.") In 1996, when Murphy won the Best Actor prize for The Nutty Professor from the National Society of Film Critics, one critic from a New York daily cheered, "Yes! Anybody but Geoffrey Rush [for Shine]!" However, Murphy's win came from the majority of voters' enthusiasm. It was the kind of encouragement an actor needs but seldom makes good on. The Klumps does more than confirm Murphy's critical acceptance. Its tale of Sherman's coming to grips with his masculine pride and professional status shows Murphy's artistic maturity?and victory.
Something happened to Murphy?even before his tabloid scandal with an L.A. streetwalker?that altered his career focus. Once his reign as a media pet dimmed and several flop movies grossed less and less (including his ambitious directorial effort Harlem Nights), it was never a matter of him losing his knack. He simply had to change it?to suit changing times. Handing Hollywood's leash-and-collar to Will Smith, Murphy explored idiosyncratic humor. Starting with Vampire in Brooklyn, Murphy's film roles displayed surprising depth (and some enmity). His Nutty Professor breakthrough unexpectedly embraced the black quotidian. The Distinguished Gentleman, Holy Man and the animated tv series The P.J.s all abandoned his old buppie superficiality. And last year Murphy flashed new genius: he was ferocious in Life and flip-flopped naivete and cynicism with his dual roles in Bowfinger, each character shrewdly commenting on what Murphy knew about powerlessness and transient celebrity.
Alice and Martin Directed by Andre Techine
Andre Techine is currently the best moviemaker in France, but American film cognoscenti have kept his greatness secret. Techine has never had a complete retrospective in this country, and Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages), probably his finest film, was dismissed as a dud by the two papers that most influence foreign film distribution. His latest movie, Alice and Martin, is a peak achievement for the way it pulls together many of the themes and images that Techine has created throughout his splendid, passionate, dramatic filmography. But for those new to his world, Alice and Martin will simply be a stirring, voluptuous, heady experience.
Techine complicates a simple love story to explore its Oedipal basis. From youth, Martin (a bastard child) struggled against his father's strictures. At age 10 he leaves his mother Jeanine (Carmen Maura) to stay with his father Victor (Pierre Maguelon) and his new family?the wife Lucie (Marthe Villalonga) and three half-brothers. As an adult, Martin (Alexis Loret) stays in restless, furious revolt until meeting Alice (Juliette Binoche), the Parisian best friend of his half-brother Benjamin (Mathieu Amalric). Both Martin and the slightly older, more worldly Alice are confounded by "the courage to love." Their fight to understand each other (and themselves) is shown as part of Techine's continuing analysis of home and family, country and culture.
This could have been a conventional melodrama, but since 1974's French Provincial, Techine has dissected movie narratives for their emotional and esthetic richness?intentionally mixing the psychological and social drama. Victor's bourgeois estate is as forbidding as the manse in French Provincial that Jeanne Moreau (as Berthe) invaded as the eldest son's fiance. Alice recalls Berthe's bewilderment as she, too, brings fresh blood?new life?to a decaying family. As these Techine women witness the primal male family battle, they are also privy to how society shapes/warps personality. Gay Benjamin proclaims, "I was made to feel like a black sheep, so I became one." Martin can't clarify his own unease, but clings to Alice?a maternal lover seeking her social place, her own romantic satisfaction. The kind of woman Alice is is shown by contrasts with other mothers, Jeanine and Lucie.
Techine proceeds by thematic studies more than by a scene or plot development. His exceptional visual talent and semiotic training makes each sequence vivid (Techine dares composing a troika of boy-son-father to cap the family drama, memorializing Martin and Victor's antagonism). Through such visual design, you are captivated by the characters' dilemmas?Martin's boyhood thrall in a new home or Alice's attempt to escape Martin's declaration of love is made succinct. She is haunted by his image (he becomes a model featured in a perfume ad) throughout the Paris Metro. In Martin's Calvin Klein-like ad?"Paradis pour Homme"?he's posed searching for an identity. It's a pop joke like Techine's early modernist caprices, but it's underscored by evocative moments of distress, as when Martin, vacationing in Granada with Alice, acts up and swims away like the Algerian boy's visually ravishing attempt to escape in Les Innocents.
Alice and Martin is the most exciting moviemaking currently on view (certainly not the esthetically handicapped, visually wretched Chuck & Buck?a mere video). It was shocking when a critic called Techine's technique "clunky." That showed no appreciation for Techine's daring, Faulknerian time structure?as in 1996's Les Voleurs. Retracing Martin's history, Techine withholds then explodes the pivotal moment in his life. He makes the narrative intellectually exciting. The film's subject spins, like its imagery. The intimidating home, the fear of self-knowledge, loving, guilt, the social world versus personal (family) need?these issues encircle each other rapturously. Most movies can be reduced to story line and spectacle; Techine perseveres with poetry.
Ozon Layers. Both Water Drops on Burning Rocks and Criminal Lovers show François Ozon's eclectic effort to stimulate current French cinema. The first adapts an early Fassbinder play, the second adapts Ozon's sinister fantasies of sexual tension to the form of a fairy tale. In other words, Fassbinder meets Cocteau and The Night of the Hunter meets Badlands. Ozon has yet to reach Techine's level, but he earns your attention. If only by staying promising.
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