Examining Hollywood Remakes: The Nutty Professor

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Jerry Lewis and Eddie Murphy are two of the best big-screen comedians in the history of the film industry. Jerry Lewis’ 1963 hit The Nutty Professor is a comedy classic, which Lewis wrote and directed himself. Eddie Murphy is one of the few comedians talented enough to try to recapture that magic and succeed.  Murphy’s remake is so entertaining that it matches the original in overall comedic quality. Which is better? Let’s look at the two versions.What’s interesting about this comparison is that both versions of The Nutty Professor are the benchmark for the second half of the careers of the respective stars. Jerry Lewis started out in the 1940s as the goofy half of the comedy team Martin & Lewis, along with suave singer Dean Martin. After the duo broke up, Lewis began the second half of his career as a solo performer. The Nutty Professor was the best film of his second half.

Eddie Murphy began his career in the 1980s playing edgy, fast-talking, street-smart characters on Saturday Night Live, 48 Hours, Trading Places, the Golden Child and the Beverly Hills Cop films. After a career slump in the early/mid-1990s, Murphy filmed his remake of The Nutty Professor (1996) which jump-started the second half of his career as a star of family-friendly fare like Doctor Dolittle, Mulan, and the Shrek films.

 

The plot (both versions) is a comedic variation of the Jekyll & Hyde tale about a kind-hearted but socially frustrated and unpopular college professor with a secret crush on a pretty girl. He invents a formula that transforms him into a charismatic, attractive party guy. However, though his alter ego is cool and confidence, he’s also lacking empathy for other people and ends up alienating the woman he wants to impress and is ultimately revealed as a fake in front of a crowd when the formula wears off. He learns an important lesson about being yourself and ultimately gets the girl by being genuine.  

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The interpretation of the main character and his motivation for creating the formula is the biggest divergence between the two films. In the original version, Lewis plays Professor Julius Kelp, who is the nerdiest, dorkiest dweeb imaginable. Although he is good-heated and intelligent, he is also shy, awkward and accident-prone (he once blew up his lab). He has an unrequited crush on one of his students, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens). He fantasizes about her but is afraid to reveal his feelings (Was it legal for a college professor to date a student in the 1960s?) and is humiliated in front of her when one of his students picks him up and dumps him into a cabinet. Yes, Kelp is such a complete wimp that his own students bully him. He is berated by his boss Dean Warfield (Del Moore) who calls him a “menace” due to his frequent accidents. All this is the motivation for Kelp taking his testosterone formula to become the suave but arrogant Buddy Love.

 In the Murphy remake, the main character is Prof. Sherman Klump, whose problem is his weight. A lot of weight. He is morbidly obese, which causes him to be self-conscious and unattractive to women. He is a very nice, gentle man but he is always on the receiving end of insults and tasteless jokes due to his weighty bulk. He is yelled at by his insensitive boss Dean Richmond (Larry Miller)–who begins with a fat joke–because Klump’s heaviness causes an incident in the lab. Klump then meets beautiful Carla Purdy (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is a graduate student/teacher trainee. She is familiar with Klump’s work in DNA restructuring and shows a surprising interest in him, despite his plumpness. He tries to impress her on a date by taking her to a nightclub but he is humiliated by a cruel comic (Dave Chappelle) who lambasts Klump with endless fat jokes. This humiliation drives him to take his experimental DNA formula meant to eliminate his fat. It works but it also increases his testosterone to epic proportions, turning him into a macho jerk, who takes the name Buddy Love.

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Lewis’ depiction of Buddy Love is smoother and more laid back than Murphy’s version. Lewis notoriously wrote Love as a parody of his former partner Dean Martin, who was a debonair, handsome, hard-drinking womanizer. This is why we see Buddy Love singing so often in the 1963 version, because Lewis was taking a swipe at Martin’s highly successful singing career. Buddy Love even charms the Dean, getting him to allow Love to perform at the graduation dance.

Murphy played Buddy Love as a larger-than-life, in-your-face party animal. One of the best scenes in the remake is when Buddy Love gets his sweet revenge on the comic (Chappelle) by heckling and disrupting his nightclub act, and out-insulting him, ultimately coming up on stage and shoving him inside a piano. (You have to wonder how he got away with that without being arrested.) This Buddy Love is so in-the-moment that he never thinks about consequences, so he does things such as charging a $47,000 sports car to his expense account at the college.

In both versions, Buddy’s relationship with Purdy is shaky. In the original Stella Purdy is strangely intrigued by Buddy but seems reluctant to fully trust him. It’s not clear whether this is because he is such a jerk or because she is actually attracted to the nerdy professor Kelp due to his sweet disposition. In the remake, Carla Purdy accepts a date from Buddy Love and is initially impressed by Buddy’s punishment of the obnoxious comic but she is quickly turned off to him because he flirts with three other women during their date. 

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The way the professor and Buddy Love are differentiated in each films is as much a product of the times as it is due to the performances. In the original, there is no make-up used, and the variation between Kelp and Love is mostly in the performance, with some help from eye glasses and wardrobe. In the remake, prosthetic make-up and a fat suit added to the change. While Murphy did a good job separating the dual personalities, a lot of it is in the make-up. When Lewis’ version of Love starts to revert back to the Professor, it’s done in a slow, subtle way, and it’s all down to the performance. When Murphy’s Klump starts to transform back, it’s done with visual effects as parts of his body morph and expand.

Heavy make-up is also used to allow Murphy to portray the members of his family, who are also heavy and who enable his eating problem. When we get a look at Lewis’ backstory—where we find out that his father was a weak, henpecked, abused wimp—he plays himself as a small child, which again is done with no make-up, only an oversized crib. Much of this has to do with the fact that Lewis himself directed and wrote his own version, whereas the Murphy version was done by Tom Shadyac who frequently worked with the more visually oriented human cartoon character Jim Carrey on Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty.

So which is better? It’s hard to pick one because they’re both so damn good. It’s difficult to choose between two of the top comic actors ever. The original version is admirable because Lewis starred, wrote, produced and directed the whole thing himself. However, the Murphy version avoids the somewhat inappropriate idea of a teacher getting involved with his student. The Lewis version didn’t rely so much on FX and make-up but Murphy’s version had the terrific revenge scene, with Love owning and destroying comic Chappelle. Both have surprisingly poignant moments, such as Kelp’s repentant speech at the end of the Lewis version, or the sight of Klump’s despondent face as he is publically humiliated by the comic in the Murphy version.

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It’s a very close match-up but if pushed to choose, I’d give a very slight edge to the Murphy version for two reasons. (1) because it does a nice job of sympathetically portraying the bias and judgements that overweight people have to deal with on a daily basis, and (2) because of its colorblind style, meaning that although the leads were African American, they never degenerate into the usual clichés or stereotypes we so often see in comedies. Both of these films are wonderful comedies and worth seeing but the new one barely edges out the original.

So that’s all for this week’s look at a good remake. We’ll be back next week with a not-so-good one. In the meantime, you can look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.