The Klumps Showcases the Best Actor in America; Techine’s Poetic Alice and Martin

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Nutty Professor
II: The Klumps
by Peter Segal
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
breakthrough unexpectedly embraced the black quotidian. The
Distinguished Gentleman
, Holy Man and the animated tv series The
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.

The Klumps takes
Murphy even deeper. In the bosom of a family situation, he freely plays with
notions of success, fleeting youth and the ruse of identity. Sherman’s
insecurity is satirized with Buddy Love’s rampant schizophrenia, and his
fear of being unmanned is doubly defied–by Papa’s and Ernie’s
macho outbursts, and by the vivid Klump women. The film gets deliriously good
when Granny sparks Buddy. It’s like watching a comedian’s thought
processes turn into fireworks. Few comic actors have gone this far expressing
their various neuroses. (Buddy Love isn’t just a Jekyll-and-Hyde nightmare;
Sherman’s doggish id has extra-witty traits, like sticking his head outside
a car window to enjoy the passing breeze.) Robin Williams has rarely found a
watchable character, despite spinning overpopulated improvs, and Jim Carrey’s
wild slapstick gets more amazing without ever being believable. In The Klumps,
a series of boffo comic setpieces, Eddie Murphy develops and expands human complexity.
The Klumps, a warmer family than the entire Wayans clan, are comparable to the
American types W.C. Fields and Mae West and Harold Lloyd once innovated for
themselves. It took 20 years for Murphy to see beyond the dazzle of his own
phenomenal success and find substance. Despite this film’s over-the-top
sci-fi, f/x climax, its sense of humor stems from a sense of Murphy’s roots.
I had a publicized tiff with Murphy over the falsifications of Coming to
. Now I salute him as an artist who has finally brought his talent
home. Right now, he’s the best actor in America.

and Martin
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

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.