Murphy Gets Lost in a Creaky Haunted Mansion
There was once an extremely talented comedian fresh from Saturday Night Live. He took co-starring roles with some of the biggest names in comedy, superstars like Dudley Moore and Dan Aykroyd, and subsequently stole movies right out from underneath them. Then came Walter Hill‘s 48Hrs. with Nick Nolte. Immediately, this bright young dynamo was catapulted to superstardom, and with a tip of a ten-gallon hat everything he touched from then on out turned into comedic gold.
That star was Eddie Murphy, and it is with a grieving heart I must pass on the word of his demise. No, not physically, but comedically, because that shimmering comet of laugh-inducing thunder who helped shape the modern face of cinematic comedy in the 1980s and ’90s no longer exists. Sadly, I think I can safely say we won’t be seeing another Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, or Boomerang anytime soon.
Don’t get me wrong, Murphy can still sparkle, but the luster is definitely beginning to fade. The only time he tends to excel of late is in a supporting role, like his sublime turn in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, or with dynamic vocal turns in Mulan and Shrek. But as far as his leading man material is concerned, Murphy’s been treading water for some time now, and while he still has had some substantial hits – both The Nutty Professor II and Daddy Day Care made bank – audiences are slowly coming around to noticing he’s not the go-for-broke actor he once was.
I’d like to say this trend comes to an end with Disney’s new family horror-comedy-adventure The Haunted Mansion and that Murphy is back firing on all cylinders, that the actor’s larger-than-life charisma elevates this based-on-a-theme-park-ride adaptation to a level it would not have risen to without him. I’d like to say a lot of things, like my Seattle Supersonics are going to win the NBA championship this season or the United States has a foreign policy that makes sense, but that’s not going to happen. Despite a winning moment here and a wonderful one there, The Haunted Mansion has more in common with The Country Bears than it does Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and that’s too bad.
But dang does Murphy at least not phone this one in. Additionally, director Rob Minkoff, the co-director of The Lion King and a filmmaker who made the leap to effects-heavy live-action with the wonderful Stuart Little 2, is up to the task. He’s assembled a stellar ensemble to bounce off Murphy, not the least of which includes Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, and Jennifer Tilly. He’s also brought on board the awesome Oscar-winning talents of Rick Baker to handle the makeup and ghost effects, meaning the pieces for something surprisingly special are all in place.
But a flat script by Roger Berenbaum stops things cold. While not as awful as the crass, witless Elf, that his scenario for this big-budget endeavor is only frustratingly maudlin and not aggravatingly terrible isn’t exactly a good thing.
Murphy stars as Jim Evers, one half of Evers & Evers Real Estate along with his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason). He’s an arrogantly slapdash salesman obsessed with making that next big sale, and Sara’s upset that he spends too much time working and not enough with their two kids, Megan (Aree Davis) and Michael (Marc John Jefferies). To make it up to her, Jim promises to take the whole family to the lake for the weekend. But when Sara gets invited to the fabled Gracie Mansion to meet with the owner, the eager-beaver other half of Evers Real Estate can’t help but make his wife and kids take a 20-minute pre-vacation pitstop in the hope of acquiring the property.
Soon they’re all dining with Mr. Gracie (Nathaniel Parker) himself. But nothing is as it seems, and when the family is stranded in the mansion due to a thunderous rainstorm, it quickly becomes apparent their host and his staff aren’t altogether corporeal. Gracie has his ghostly eyes fixed squarely on Sara, and it’s up to Jim, Megan, and Michael to find the secret behind the curse that traps 999 spirits on the estate and release them all to travel into the light and a peaceful afterlife.
There’s nothing wrong with this scenario. I like that Berenbaum grounds The Haunted Mansion in a way that harkens back to old-school Disney projects like Treasure Island and The Moon-Spinners where choices had consequences and family-friendly movies were not afraid to bring up a sensitive subject or two. The filmmakers assume their audience can handle a few gentle scares along with some weightily complex moralistic dilemmas, and that’s a good thing.
If only the adventure it’s all wrapped up within were worth emotionally investing in. Minkoff tries desperately to camouflage the script’s alphabetic structure with as much visual razzle-dazzle as he can muster, and Murphy freely goes over the top with such gonzo gusto it’s somewhat clear he’s making up some of this as he goes along. But there is a television sitcom banality to the overall narrative that’s tiresome, events having a humdrum been-there-done-that vibe that is only missing a laugh track to be complete.
Still, unlike recent Murphy failures like The Adventures of Pluto Nash or I Spy, this one isn’t a total wipeout. Jeffers and Davis – in her feature debut – are perfect as the Evers’ aggravated children, while Tilly almost rolls off with the movie as a psychic gypsy whose head resides in a sea of green mist swirling within a crystal ball. Minkoff and Berenbaum fit many of the ride’s more memorable aspects, including the ghoulish waltz and the stone-faced barbershop quartet, into the picture as well, slipping them in with far more finesse than I thought would have been possible.
Best of all is a splendidly macabre chase through a creepy mausoleum. Murphy and the kids are pursued by what must be the ghastliest set of zombies to ever grace a Disney movie. This moment, more than any other, crystallizes what could have been, and in doing so makes the unrelenting banality of almost everything else even more frustrating than it already was.
Some great ideas are floating around in The Haunted Mansion, and Minkoff knows how to make his camera whirl and twirl with the best of them. But it’s all so much smoke and mirrors to hide the fact nothing is going on behind this comedy’s lovingly crafted antique doors. As for Murphy, the only thing that seems to be haunted right now is his career, and even when he’s giving something close to one of his better efforts, it’s still starting to feel like the comedic genius’ best days are unfortunately behind him.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)