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You gotta get your ass off the Moon.


The Adventures of Pluto Nash


How many times did Eddie Murphy’s strategy of bringing the funny to a straight movie actually bear fruit? Twice, as I count it, and both right near the beginning of his big-screen career (48 Hrs and Beverly Hills Cop). And how many sci-fi comedies have been big hits? Which makes it easy to assume giving the greenlight to The Adventures of Pluto Nash, its budget eventually clocking in around $100m, was reckless in the extreme. But who knows? Maybe, if funny Eddie Murphy, Eddie bringing his A-game, had shown up on Ron Underwood’s set, rather than Eddie with the comedy outlook of a post-Sixth Sense Bruce Willis, the reception might have been different. I can’t see Pluto Nash having been a big hit however you cut it, but the alchemical quality of an engaged Eddie vs a disengaged one could not be underestimated.

Were Castle Rock/Warner completely screw-loose, then? Underwood came aboard the project – the Neil Cuthbert script for which had been knocking about since 1983! – in 1998, at which point Murphy was having a bankable second wind after an early-90s slump that included The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III and Vampire in Brooklyn. Sure Metro and Holy Man bombed, but effects/fantasy vehicles The Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle and Mulan had done great business. Considered in those terms, another effects/fantasy vehicle might have been banked on as a boon. Besides which – since this would be exactly the thinking – funny African-American Will Smith had just cleaned up in two sci-fi movies, one of which was also a rare outright comedy (Men in Black).

The alternate metric probably wasn’t their preferred. Starting with The Golden Child (a hit, in spite of itself) and then into Vampire in Brooklyn and Metro – subsequently reconfirmed with Showtime and I Spy – any time Murphy has ventured away from out-and-out comedy, he’d floundered. And by their nature, Murphy movies didn’t come cheap. On that score, Vampire in Brooklyn ironically emerged unscathed, but even a modest success like Bowfinger cost $50m; Life was Number 1 at the box office, but it couldn’t even make its budget back.

By the point he made The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Murphy’s star was long since in the “selective”, then, having extinguished audiences’ willingness to follow him anywhere with Harlem Nights. Per Wiki, Nash ranks as one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. The likes of Battleship, Cutthroat Island, Jungle Cruise, The Lone Ranger, Mortal Engines, Mulan, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Titan A.E. are all pegged as losing more money (on conservative estimates, inflation adjusted), but very few on the list can boast grossing less (Monkeybone, Lolita, Inchon, Heaven’s Gate, The Fall of the Roman Empire unadjusted). Perhaps Cuthbert’s lack of hit count should have been considered too (The Return of Swamp Thing, Hocus Pocus, Mystery Men).

Pluto Nash: You know how hard it is to get wood on the Moon?

The movie’s pervasive torpidity gets in the way of paying attention to its more distinctive science-fiction elements. Pluto Nash is set further in the future than most – 2080 and 2087 – and it goes without saying that it’s observing NASA space by having revolving around an established Moon colony. There’s something of the vibe that will be found in The Expanse here, of enmity between those who live on Earth and those on the Moon (“I went back to Earth once, and the air smelled funny”), along with different rules; Moon Beach is claimed to be “The only place in the universe where gambling is legal” and is owned by the mysterious Rex Crater (who blows up Pluto’s club when Nash refuses to sell). Animals aren’t allowed (Pluto is holding a frozen chihuahua for a friend). There’s a biometric camera system installed in every club.

It’s also revealed that cloning has been outlawed on Earth following the success of the Air Jordans basketball team; the technology is evidently rife, though, as – in one of the movie’s few surprises – it turns out the Rex Crater is a clone of Pluto, created at mobster Michael Zoroaster Marucci’s (Alec Baldwin) request. Cloning’s ethics are also interrogated, to a greater or lesser extent – mostly lesser – in the likes of The Island and The 6th Day around this time; Pluto Nash emphasises it as a transparently bad thing; you either have outright bad clones or clones created for the purposes of sexual gratification. Jay Mohr’s nightclub singer has cloned his wife and doesn’t care which is the original; there’s a mind-control/sex slave aspect here too, one we see in the approach to robots, which are there either for titillation/gratification of humans or other robots. While there’s no explicitly transhumanist angle to this, it follows in the essential servitor creation line of Blade Runner.

Also to be found are references to various Moon-based enterprises, including the Lunar lumbar clinic – one can “replace all the spinal vertebrae with our epoxy spinal substitute” – and an ad for Trump Realty. The currency is Hillarys too. Underwood, doubtless off the back of others citing it, was able to find “positives” in the little things of the movie when interviewed in 2020, “like the [$100 dollar] bills had the picture of Hillary Clinton on them. They were called ‘Hillarys’. And [another example] as Pluto is driving out of the city, trying to get away from the bad guys, the first time, they drive by the little community that says, ‘If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Already. Trump Real Estate’“. It’s certainly something to consider soberly, the currency suggestive of a dystopian hell where all the worst potentials of existence have come to pass. Obviously, their “coincidental” presence was seized on in light of the 2016 presidential campaign, so if you’re going to apply predictive programming here, Hillary clearly won, her litany of crimes never seeing the light of day, and Donald returned to the corporate sphere.

As the title character, Murphy’s mostly barely there. He does spark off the material occasionally, such as when he and Dina (Rosario Dawson) visit Illeana Douglas’ cosmetic surgeon, and he begins riffing on asses and “titties really flowing” (aided by some Klumps-inspired CGI).

The best bits, though, are all robot related. Randy Quaid, now best known as a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist and so inevitably disavowed by Hollywood, steals the show as an aged 63 Deluxe model android with a rictus grin (“I wish I could have a happiness chip put in my ass so I could be happy all the time”). Most of the meagre laughs come from Quaid, such as meeting another model robot (“Ah, Model DRL84. Very nice”) or being propositioned by a slot machine (“Oh baby, come on right here in the lobby”). Perhaps the funniest sequence – I know, not remotely highbrow – is courtesy of Jacynth René’s robot French maid Babette, programmed to exclaim “Oops” as she drops something and bends over to pick it up (“She’s an excellent piece of… multifunctional software” explains Pluto).

Mainly, though, the likes of Jay Mohr, Peter Boyle, Luis Guzmán, Joe Pantoliano, James Rebhorn, Burt Young and Baldwin are left dangling. Black-eye-club member John Cleese is a holographic chauffeur not even trying with his patent cheque-cashing Cleese act (some alimony payments were doubtless due). The first scene has Murphy playing straight man to Mohr, which tells you a lot about the way this is going, as it attempts to wring laughs from a toilet straight out of Trainspotting and pouring battery acid down Mohr’s throat. Victor Varnado (End of Days) is a boss-eyed albino henchman.

Underwood has no idea how to shoot his set, while Oliver Wood lights it as a set, rather than as, you know, a place (this is nothing new for SF of the period: see also Total Recall and Demolition Man). Another thing Pluto Nash illustrates is that you don’t shoot a Moon surface set in colour, grain-free and at standard speed if you want anyone buying into the illusion.

A slashfilm piece tells it that AICN’s devastating preview screening review led to a rethink, reshoots and a movie first completed in 2000 and destined for release in early 2001 delayed another year. Clearly, it was a case where it would have been wiser to cut losses or hope for the best. The Adventures of Pluto Nash isn’t actively, painfully awful for the most part; rather, it simply has no momentum or wherewithal in dramatic terms. Added to which, you’re consistently baffled that they’d cast Murphy not being funny. He’d go on to make another SF comedy bomb – Meet Dave – but that one could at least boast some sustained gags, and he actually seemed engaged by the possibilities. Pluto Nash wasn’t going to work played straight, so it’s no surprise it didn’t play kind-of, not-quite funny.

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