Eddie Murphy was trying to recover his footing in 1992. He’d experienced a couple of missteps, most notably the underwhelming reception of his self-penned, self-directed vanity project Harlem Nights and tired, desperate and unwanted sequel Another 48 Hrs (which one imagines Murphy must have agreed to do as an easy hit maker, but he even came up with the story). Neither came close to his run of ’80s hits. Boomerang represented a reinvention, with Murphy as a romantic lead and essaying an actual character arc. But it only half works.
Part of that is down to Eddie himself, who as ever-watchable as he is, just isn’t Cary Grant. He’s closer to Jerry Seinfeld in the way he manoeuvres emotional territory, never quite comfortable (at this point anyway) with the bare acting required. Looked at now, Boomerang seems like a wild leap into the unknown for him, even with the comfort factor of SNL writers he knew and trusted – David Sheffield and Barry W Blaustein had previously penned Coming to America, going on to write both Nutty Professors, and are credited on the forthcoming Coming 2 America – and more of an ensemble vibe than he’d been accustomed to. Eddie’s in there, of course, but he barely gets a chance to be funny.
The other part of it is that the romcom premise never quite lands. Boomerang’s trying too hard with the lothario who has the tables turned device, such that Murphy’s Marcus Graham being treated as a toy boy, or a one-night stand, or having his feelings hurt or – in possibly Boomerang’s most on-its-head moment – given a sex scene where his climaxing is reverse gendered, tend to forget to milk these scenes for laughs. They best they can come up with is mild bemusement. The picture feels essentially conflicted, unsure if it wants to subvert the male gaze or pay lip service to the same because it is, essentially, insincere.
Murphy picked Reginald Hudlin to direct, who had scored a couple of years previously with the low-budget House Party. He brought along Martin Lawrence and paired him with the always under-appreciated David Alan Grier – easily taking the honours in the comedians-as-proper-thesps stakes – as Murphy’s best buds (Chris Rock also shows up).
Hudlin cited Annie Hall and His Girl Friday as influences, but I wondered how much When Harry Met Sally… inspired the best pal conversations. These run from attitudes to the opposite sex (Lawrence referring to women as bitches), to racism, to homophobia (Lawrence, of course) and homophobia apologia (Murphy’s stand-up history – in an attempt to dispel Grace Jones’ attentions, Marcus claims to be gay, but Boomerang then contrives a macho get-out with her assertion that he is lying. She can always spot a gay man). The oddest aspect is that Hudlin takes an age to inject any rhythm or form into the movie. The buddy conversations have evident chemistry between the stars, but they don’t play very well, and they aren’t very inspired or hugely amusing.
It isn’t until Murphy’s nemesis, his female mirror in the form of fellow advertising exec (and now his boss, thanks to a corporate merger) Robin Givens enters the scene that Boomerang begins to discover a flow. But still, it never feels assured in its tone or plotting. Givens, sly, confident and controlling, is exactly what Boomerang needs, even clearer with a quarter of a century distance and the Mike Tyson baggage divested. Then there’s Halle Berry in the tried-and-tested role of the real catch the protagonist doesn’t even notice until he does.
It’s quite a revelation to recall her in a “relaxed” early role, before she became all about steely posing as the likes of Storm and Jinx and… er, Catwoman. Berry and Murphy enjoy several solid scenes together, but they’re definitely ones where he’s allowing himself to mess around – with the kids she teaches, including a very of its time riff on the disappearing ozone layer, or professing his love for Star Trek: “Ain’t Captain Kirk the coolest white man on the planet?” – rather than espousing his sincere feelings; it’s notable that Murphy hasn’t gone there since. At least, unaided by prosthetics.
Consequently, the strongest evidence Boomerang doesn’t really work is that the best material doesn’t feature Murphy, or only as an adjunct. Bebe Drake-Massey and particularly John Witherspoon are hilarious as Grier’s wholly over the top, rampantly sexual parents (just look at the scene where Grier’s parents arrive and Murphy’s clearly in awe of Witherspoon’s riffing, loving every moment of it). And Geoffrey Holder is pure dynamite as Nelson, the camp ad director with a penchant for suggestive fruit, responsible for the show-stopping Strange (Jones’ character) perfume ad in which she gives birth to a bottle of the stuff. Jones is a good sport too, delivering a terrifying riff on herself (Eartha Kitt, meanwhile, is just plain scary).
It’s telling that Murphy had been away for just two years, but Boomerang still made significantly less money than the generally derided 48 Hrs sequel. Credit to him for seeing he needed to change things, but it wouldn’t be until the second half of the decade, following commercial and or critical stumbles The Distinguished Gentlemen, Vampire in Brooklyn and the calamitous Beverly Hills Cop III that he hit the bullseye again with Sherman Klump. From that point, he was able to withstand frequent bombs thanks to remakes, sequels to remakes, and a certain donkey. And then he just disappeared. Until very recently. Boomerang stands as something of a curio as a result.