Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Unholy Mess

By Hadley Hury

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  The packaging of popular funny man Eddie Murphy with the more marginally known actor Jeff Goldblum is unfortunate on two counts. Fans expecting the usual tour-de-force in which – for better (The Nutty Professor) or worse (Dr. Dolittle) – Murphy is in virtually every frame of the film will be disappointed to see him playing what amounts to a subordinate role in Holy Man. And filmgoers who would rather watch a two-hour video at high volume of a hand repeatedly screeching a piece of chalk across a blackboard than sit through almost any Eddie Murphy vehicle are going to miss a surprisingly elegant and interesting performance by Goldblum who, despite his titularly supporting status, is in fact the star here, and whose characterization goes beyond the script’s superficiality to invest Holy Man with passages of superb comedy and genuinely moving drama. It seems that in this project Murphy harkened back to the buddy successes of Trading Places, Hollywood Cop, and 48 Hours, (and, perhaps, at an opportunity to broaden his range a bit), and that the sometimes hard-to-cast Goldblum saw a chance, even with second-banana billing, at a juicy role in a likely blockbuster. As it turns out, Murphy seems curiously detached from the film; he has far less screen time than his co-star, popping up only for occasional, brief, one-joke scenes. His appearance in Holy Man (performance seems an inaccurate word choice) strongly suggests that this outing was a sort of breather in his busy shooting schedule, a leisurely walk to the bank. And though with his popularity he’ll no doubt get away with it, the word-of-mouth, even among his die-hard following, may be less than enthusiastic: The movie seems to be about the other guy. And that, Jeff Goldblum’s performance – unexpected in this frivolous context, subtle, compelling, really groundbreaking in his career – is precisely why students of good film acting should see (at least when it comes to video) Holy Man.

Murphy plays “G”, a sketchily indicated spiritual wayfarer, who appears out of nowhere to change the lives of a driven, self-absorbed, cable television executive named Ricky (Goldblum) and the co-worker (Kelly Preston) who catches Ricky’s eye when it isn’t voraciously fixed on the sales figures being generated by the home-shopping network. There’s very little Supreme about this Being; instead of imparting spiritual truths, he cracks jokes, his evangelism for brotherly love seems limited to exhorting people to “give this person a big hug,” and in lieu of miracles he performs cocktail party tricks. He may or may not represent God and, if he does, the theological connections are tenuous at best. Like most of Holy Man’s shallow concepts and anemically developed ideas of Holy Man, the character of G is a fuzzy platitude, little more than TV sitcom fodder. With this rather vacuously benign nonentity seeming to hover around the edges of the film’s pallid storyline, the viewer’s attention is understandably drawn to the character of Ricky, the object of G’s latest intervention in the affairs of man: Goldblum’s masterful portrayal of Ricky’s human weaknesses are much more credible and absorbing than Murphy’s feeble attempt at gravitas and goodness.

Ricky is a salesman by nature, ambitious and determined, and with the home shopping network he seems to have found his niche. However, with income from the shopping channel sagging and with an even more cutthroat competitor waiting in the wings, Ricky is poised, as the film begins, to go one of two ways: He’ll either find a new gimmick and boost sales, becoming the No. 2 man to the network president (Robert Loggia), or he’ll be out on the Miami street in his Italian silk suit. G moves in with Ricky and becomes a national icon on the shopping network; he also becomes the agent of Ricky’s transformation from a crass, soulless, monomaniac (his mantras include “Good! Better! Best! Never let it rest!” and “Pressure is my mistress!”) to a man who discovers the greater powers of truth and love.

Not unlike The Truman Show, Holy Man misses an opportunity to explore intelligently and imaginatively a resonant issue – in this case, American media consumerism and religious demagoguery. It settles instead for Eddie Murphy sleepwalking through a few one-liners that seem intended as provocative irreverence but which are in fact sophomoric, predictable, and indifferently amusing.

What may well make believers of those viewers willing to appreciate great performances wherever they occur is Goldblum’s work; for many it is likely to signal a breadth of talent not heretofore suspected. From Ricky’s deeply ironic outlook on the world to his protective coating of oblique humor, Goldblum subtly etches the character of a man so fixed on the strategies for succeeding that he has forgotten who he is, what he wants from success, and even why he wanted it. Ricky’s eye is uncritically focused on the medium and oblivious to the message, the sensations of his brief attention span fueled by ratings and ten-minute segments, his values determined by expedience and the bottom-line. As Ricky awakens from the narcotic insularity of his career, first to self-doubt and finally to putting principles on the line, Goldblum evinces an impressive range of emotional and technical capacities. Director Stephen Herek seems clearly aware that this performance is the heart of the film and stands clear; he wisely gives Goldblum numerous close-ups and trusts, in his big scenes, the actor’s impeccable sense of nuance and timing. Goldblum, with his very tall, lanky, frame and his strong, unusual features, has frequently been relegated to gonzo comedy. In this, his meatiest leading-man role to date, he finally gets the chance to show his dramatic capability as well.

We should hope that producers will have enough sense, next time out, not to cast the pearls of Goldblum’s talents before …well, Eddie Murphy.

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