Harlem Nights

Harlem Nights. Paramount Pictures 1989.

Before watching the movie:

This movie came to my attention from a book of Drew Struzan movie poster art (his design was not used). I was interested by the art deco style of Struzan’s poster and headliners Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, but I was scared off by the way it seemed to be promoted as a serious film about organized crime. I was relieved to read today when I chose it that it is in fact an action comedy. About organized crime.

After watching the movie:

Sugar Ray and his adopted son Quick run a highly successful illegal casino in 1930s Harlem. The club is so successful, in fact, that mob boss Bugsy Calhoun has learned that they consistently outgross his operation, and sent dirty cop Phil Cantone to shut down Club Sugar Ray unless Calhoun gets two thirds of the club’s entire take. Essentially forced out of business, Ray and Quick hatch a plan to rob Calhoun and run, if they can survive Calhoun’s attempted hits until the championship boxing match.

As I was watching this, I felt like it was two acts of crime drama with some incongruous comic relief, and only the final act was really a proper comedy. Writer/director Eddie Murphy has three comedy legends (four if Arsenio Hall counts) and squanders all but one of them. The one is not himself. Any scene with Red Foxx the blind table runner and/or his wife Della Reese the Madam is (awkwardly) hilarious. Richard Pryor is pretty much dead serious through the entire story. Eddie Murphy has one or two good moments, but also one or two awkwardly unfunny moments. Arsenio Hall appears for a sequence as a gangster whooping with grief and anger over his dead brother, who he thinks Quick killed, which just seemed pretty dumb to me.

One thing the film does do well is the period look and feel. The atmosphere invited me in and made me want to care about the story, even when it was apparent it wasn’t going to be nearly as funny as I thought. This kind of lavish detail deserved a better-written story.

At the start of the film, the characters use half a dozen expletives in every breath. This subsides eventually, but the language is still unambiguously adult. I guess starting out strongly profane is intended to immediately set the tone, but for me it just made the movie awkward to watch, even if I didn’t have anyone with me.

Watch this movie: as a gangster movie first, not a comedy.

Don’t watch this movie: with children, their parents, or their parents’ parrots.

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