Eddie Murphy and John Landis clashed their way through three big, unwieldy comic vehicles

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Jesse Hassenger
·12 min read
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“Vic Morrow has a better chance of working with Landis than I do.”

That was Eddie Murphy’s answer to the question of whether he would re-team with John Landis, director of Trading Places and Coming To America. This ice-cold quip, referring to an actor who died on set in a horrific accident while Landis was filming his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, was not issued years later, after the dust settled on a long-term estrangement and the accident was a distant memory. Murphy said this at a press conference in 1988. While promoting Coming To America. The film they had just finished making.

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It was their second of three movies together.

This doesn’t mean that the Murphy/Landis collaboration is a story of eventual reconciliation; their final work together all but assured this would not be the case. But Landis is perhaps the only strong-willed filmmaker Murphy has repeatedly collaborated with, even if he would have preferred not to; his only other three-time director is Nickelodeon impresario Brian Robbins, whose Norbit, Meet Dave, and A Thousand Words likely posed few challenges for their brand-name star.

Over the course of 11 years, Landis dropped in on Murphy during his rapid ascent, with Trading Places in 1983; during his peak, with Coming To America in 1988; and in the midst of a particularly fallow period, with Beverly Hills Cop III in 1994. The director, meanwhile, spent much of that time on an extended comedown from the days of The Blues Brothers and Animal House, his fall from grace having less to do with box office numbers than that infamous Twilight Zone accident, eventually resulting in his trial for manslaughter. (He was acquitted, but his reputation was understandably damaged.) Yet something kept Murphy coming back to Landis at a time when he likely had a lot of say over his projects’ directors, and certainly didn’t need to cede any control to the guy who made Spies Like Us.

Indeed, Murphy might well have foregone outside filmmakers entirely. In another interview that made the rounds on Twitter a few years ago, this one from 1990, he was asked why he didn’t simply direct Coming To America himself. He frames hiring Landis as an act of loyalty and comfort after their experience making Trading Places—not, say, a concession to the idea that he might not have been ready to step behind the camera. (This was shortly after his only movie as director, Harlem Nights, which makes a perfectly reasonable case against Murphy taking matters into his own hands.) He goes on to describe nearly coming to blows with Landis on set. If the prevailing notion of Eddie Murphy vehicles in the late ’80s was that it’s best to let the star do his thing and get out of the way, Murphy’s scrap with Landis made that advice literal. And despite their respective reputations as comic powerhouses, their collaborations fall out of rhythm more often than not.

To suggest as much about Trading Places might amount to heresy in some circles. Theoretically, it’s a streamlining of the Landis comic style after the ensemble anarchy of Animal House and the demolition-musical of The Blues Brothers. Gone is sometimes-silent madman John Belushi; in comes razor-sharp and rapid-fire Eddie Murphy, striking different contrasts with Belushi’s old co-star Dan Aykroyd: by race, age, and class, rather than physicality. Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a small-time grifter who switches fortunes with the wealthy trader Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) at the whims of Winthorpe’s nefarious bosses, as part of their endless debate over nature versus nurture. It’s a great satirical screwball plot, executed with a lumbering, heavy-footed obviousness by Landis. It’s never a great sign for screwball when it feels like the actors are being forced to supply their own dialogue.

Because Murphy is very funny, Billy Ray Valentine is too. He would be funnier still if his character had much meaningful interplay with anyone; he certainly doesn’t have much chance to match wits with Aykroyd, who proved during his SNL years that he could talk as fast as anyone, yet spends most of the movie in flummoxed disbelief. (It doesn’t help that when the lead characters finally get together to pull off a scam, large chunks of it are dedicated to putting Aykroyd in blackface and setting up a gag where a bad guy gets raped by an ape.) Look at the scene where Louis is framed for theft in order to upend his cushy life. Landis, still fixated on the comedy of spectacle, stages a long parliamentary ceremony with dozens of actors performing a bizarre ritual, all to get across the extremely simple idea that the bad guys have planted stolen money in Louis’ pocket.

In scene after scene, the plot machinery moves around Murphy and Aykroyd rather than with them; it’s like shooting a concert movie and focusing primarily on the pyro. The climax of Trading Places doesn’t even try to be funny: It’s just Murphy and Aykroyd yelling at the New York Stock Exchange, their words intentionally drowned out by the chaos surrounding them, mirroring the way the movie muffles its own sharp social commentary by turning into a convoluted personal revenge scheme. Worst of it, it treats Murphy like a novelty act in a three-ring circus.

In Coming To America, the Landis spectacle feels purposeful. Whether mellowed with age or brought to heel by his star, the director’s penchant for elaborate, ceremonial silliness turns appropriately regal in depicting the fictional African country of Zamunda. The wide shots detailing the vast Zamunda palace, the royal staff that follows Murphy’s Prince Akeem around, and sight gags like the women whose primary function is throwing flower petals at his feet as he walks collectively suggest how Landis might indulge his weirdly expensive comic tastes without giving in to pure Blues Brothers excess. Compare this to the new sequel Coming 2 America, where Craig Brewer, a talented director, doesn’t strike such a delicate mock-reverent balance with his scene-setting; his Zamunda tableaux recapture the sights but not the comic feel of the place.

The Murphy that Landis syncs up with in the original America doesn’t much resemble the live-wire hotshot of Trading Places just five years earlier. Prince Akeem is already royalty at the start of Coming To America, and so was Murphy himself, having more or less conquered the world via Trading Places, two Beverly Hills Cop movies, and convincing proof that he could sell a hit movie all on his own, whether figuratively (The Golden Child) or literally (Eddie Murphy Raw). He had the clout to settle down, and so Akeem doesn’t talk his way in and out of sticky situations; he’s a young man who simply longs for genuine romantic connection outside his palace walls. Notably, his fish-out-of-water act doesn’t depend on Murphy clashing with (and then, inevitably, finding acceptance with) white establishment figures.

This shift is part of Coming To America’s fascinating balance between acts of modesty and acts of pure ego, befitting a fraught on-set experience that produced such an affable movie. Murphy puts aside his bravado to play a gentle, sweet-natured guy—so gentle and sweet-natured, in fact, that he requires no humbling despite his lofty position. By assuming a softer-spoken role, Murphy cedes some laughs to other characters—many of whom happen to also be played by Murphy, drawing on his sketch-comedy and stand-up experience in what would become a signature move. This was Murphy’s first movie with a nearly all-Black cast, which involves hiring a litany of terrific performers—and still giving a whopping eight roles over to either himself or Arsenio Hall. In other words, Eddie Murphy presents a story about Eddie Murphy finding someone who loves him just for being Eddie Murphy, featuring comic relief from additional Eddie Murphy.

This sense of control makes Coming To America seem more like a Murphy flex than a Landis film. Landis has characterized Murphy as arrogant and alienating during the film’s production, while Murphy characterized Landis as spending the shoot fuming impotently over perceived disloyalty. Yet it still makes a bizarre kind of sense that their partnership worked with this particular movie; its mix of absurd extravagance and cornball charm stands out from Murphy’s other ’80s vehicles, fractious production or not. On screen, at least, Murphy and Landis experienced a brief connection—like two ships passing, threatening each other with bodily harm, and angrily renouncing each other in the night.

If Landis was hired for Coming To America as a favor that he refused to acknowledge as such, it’s hard to tell who’s doing what kind of favor for anyone by making Beverly Hills Cop III. Landis, who was not involved with the first two Axel Foley outings, hopped on the series just in time for it to chase two of Murphy’s biggest hits with the highest-profile flop of his career up to that point. It’s especially inexplicable that it served as a Landis-Murphy reunion. (Maybe they bonded over a weakness for vampire pictures; Landis flopped with Innocent Blood right before Beverly Hills Cop III, while Murphy crashed with Vampire In Brooklyn right after.)

In fairness to Landis, a bad Cop III was bound to happen eventually, in part because the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies are also kind of bad. Despite Murphy’s electric presence, even the beloved original plays like a watered-down 48 Hours. If the first two feel like a slight mismatch between Murphy’s comic genius and rote cop-movie beats, the third one performs a weird reversal, shoehorning a restrained Murphy into a zany, amusement-park-set adventure. Landis has since said—and promotional interviews with Murphy at the time of the movie’s 1994 release confirm—that Murphy wanted to portray a more grown-up, less wisecracking Axel than in the previous films. Whether this is a misguided artistic notion or depressed self-sabotage on Murphy’s part, Landis emphatically fails to make it work.

This is clear from the opening sequence. Alongside patented Landis big-canvas zaniness like car thieves doing an impromptu, vaguely Blues Brothers-y dance to a Supremes song and Axel’s car gradually getting shot to pieces during a chase, there’s a this-time-it’s-personal plot turn giving Murphy ample opportunity to play anguished, angry, and reserved—anything but funny. As Cop III goes on, the gap remains, as Landis makes time for some elaborately silly gags and Murphy steadfastly refuses to engage with comic set pieces. At one point, Axel crashes the stage at an awards luncheon honoring the criminal he’s pursuing, a moment seemingly custom-made for both Murphy’s fast-talking improvisations and Landis’ love of assembling gigantic crowds. So when Murphy makes it to the stage, he… repeats the bad guy’s name a bunch of times, then punches him. Most of Beverly Hills Cop III is merely indifferent. Occasionally, though, it crosses over into hostility.

It’s no secret that a lot of comedians are consumed by ego—and despite audiences embracing the first two Murphy/Landis collaborations, all three suggest that delighting people with laughter may have been their secondary concerns. They feel like movies with something else to prove, whether it’s Murphy’s star power or Landis’ ability to spectacularize the Hollywood comedy. Regardless of their levels of success, all three tease out the innate stubbornness of the 1980s big-budget comic vehicle, a form where one performer’s sense of humor has a multimillion-dollar apparatus constructed around it.

Murphy and Landis seem to share a reverence for this form—not even necessarily despite its excess but because of it. Many classic Murphy characters are oddly static; Billy Ray Valentine, Prince Akeem, and Axel Foley don’t discover anything especially new or unexpected about themselves, save perhaps Billy’s skill in finance. (Prince Akeem saves his more traditional change-of-heart arc for the new sequel, where it’s lost in a shuffle of callbacks and vague characterizations.) Landis, too, seems to favor force-of-nature characters over conduits for tedious growth and change; look at his pre-Murphy muse John Belushi. It’s easy to see why Landis would suck it up and return to Murphy, even after threatened with bodily harm; this was an even-bigger successor to the rock-star-like names Landis commanded at his peak. For Murphy’s part, maybe he felt Landis could keep the top-of-the-’80s triumph going strong, even in 1994. At the very least, Landis obviously understood the potential hugeness of a hit movie-star comedy in a way that, say, Michael Ritchie did not.

Of course, this mutual affinity for going big suggests a certain lack of comedic maneuverability. Landis couldn’t stop himself from making Trading Places big and lumbering. Murphy couldn’t stop himself from doing Beverly Hills Cop III even though he appeared deeply uninterested. The two of them couldn’t stop each other from butting heads. Only Coming To America, with its playful gags, warmth, and multiple Eddies, hinted at paths beyond the star-machinery hubris.

Murphy would find those paths and regain his mojo. Many of his best performances were still in front of him in 1994, albeit only occasionally for strong filmmakers. Landis, whether by reputation, stubbornness, or both, was pretty much done with A-list studio comedies after Beverly Hills Cop III. It was as if his whole way of marshaling enormous resources in the name of comic hijinks had finally been rattled by a presence too big for him to control. This gives Murphy’s dark Twilight Zone joke an extra kick years later: A fatal accident couldn’t fully deter Landis from his favored excesses, but Eddie Murphy could. Landis remains one of the most immediately distinctive directors Murphy has collaborated with. But he still had to get out of the way.