On February 15, 1987, The New York Times published an article by film critic Janet Maslin titled “Comedies Without Laughs Merit Cries Of Protest,” which focuses on the dispiriting phenomenon of the 1986 Eddie Murphy vehicle The Golden Child selling somewhere in the area of 12 million tickets, despite the film’s appalling paucity of laughs. Of The Golden Child’s audience, Maslin writes, “It may be that not one of them has laughed while watching it, not even once” before modifying her assertion just slightly to acknowledge:
Audiences sit through The Golden Child in near-total silence, and only occasionally does the film elicit any reaction. They watch, in what can only be bewilderment, as exotic locations, fake-looking stunts and incomprehensible special effects parade wearily across the screen. They may chuckle at Mr. Murphy's very infrequent wisecracks—some of the humorous material was reportedly added when the film was almost finished, to give it a much-needed boost—but none of the jokes is memorable. Nor is anything else about The Golden Child, but that need not slow its momentum. It’s already in orbit, and now it can stay there.
Maslin isn’t saying she personally did not find The Golden Child amusing: She’s making a blanket generalization about how the entire viewing public processed The Golden Child. Taste is inherently subjective, and few film genres are more subjective than comedy, yet Maslin’s phrasing suggests that, objectively speaking, The Golden Child simply is not funny.
This doesn’t qualify as a particularly bold assertion. In both in the moment of its release and in the 27 years since, a near-universal consensus has formed that The Golden Child isn’t funny. The film has paradoxically become infamous for its forgettability. It’s the perfect example of a strange breed of film: movies that seemingly no one remembers that nevertheless gross small fortunes.
As a testament to the subjectivity of comedy, a little later in her essay, Maslin quips that due to its commercial success and future ubiquity on home video and television:
The Golden Child may be billed as a comedy classic. It can sit there, on a shelf besides Spies Like Us and Three Amigos and Ghostbusters and Legal Eagles, on the shelf reserved for Non-Movies of the ’80s. And it will fit in perfectly: Clerks will be able to recommend it to customers in good conscience. But this is a film that was never well liked, not even when it was new. Why does it deserve to live forever?
History has treated the films Maslin singles out as the “Non-Movies of the ’80s” differently. Though it grossed just under $50 million domestically and was the 14th top-grossing film of 1986 (that was back when $50 million was still a lot of money), Legal Eagles is widely regarded as a flop, due to both its massive budget and its forgettability. Spies Like Us has not aged well, but having visited an officially licensed Three Amigos-themed cantina in Cozumel, Mexico a quarter-century after the film’s release, I can personally vouch that the film has resonated across the culture in weird, persistent, apparently international ways. And many of my Gen-X colleagues would describe Ghostbusters as one of the movies of the 1980s, a comedy touchstone with such a massive presence in the culture that fans continue to obsess about a third entry as if trying to will it into existence.
This brings us to the second part of Maslin’s statement. In the same paragraph where she pans Ghostbusters as one of the “Non-Movies of the 1980s,” she asks why films like The Golden Child “deserve to live forever” by virtue of their commercial success. The answer is that The Golden Child doesn’t deserve to live forever, nor has it. Despite its commercial success, it has receded in the cultural memory to such an extent that it now qualifies as what this column is calling Forgotbusters: films that were among the top 25 highest-grossing films of their release years that have since been all but forgotten by the moviegoing population at large.
Reduced to its bare outlines, The Golden Child in some ways resembles Ghostbusters, which came out just two years earlier: Take a popular Saturday Night Live alum (or alumni, in Ghostbusters’ case); put him in a special-effects-heavy, kid-friendly fantastical adventure; then wait for the bucks to roll in. Murphy was even eyed for the role Ernie Hudson ended up playing in Ghostbusters, but at that point, Murphy was much too big to be playing “the black guy” in anyone else’s movie, even one as big as Ghostbusters. (His Beverly Hills Cop outgrossed Ghostbusters that same year.) Instead, Murphy played a role in The Golden Child originally intended for Mel Gibson. When Murphy took the part, the film was hastily converted from a relatively straight action-adventure epic to a comedy, though the film shifted genres in pre-production without becoming funny in the process. Maslin wasn’t kidding about the film’s dearth of inspiration: It’s a barren comic desert, a cinematic wasteland that surrounds its star with a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo and indifferently executed special effects while giving him virtually nothing to work with.
In an earlier, more blessed era, Golden Child director Michael Ritchie delivered a remarkable string of scathing satires of contemporary American life: The Candidate, Smile, the original Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough. Here, Ritchie seems content to follow his star’s lead, contributing as little of his personality and talent as possible while still theoretically fulfilling his professional obligations. Though he enjoyed success in the action-comedy genre a year prior with Fletch, here, he’s defeated by the demands of choreographing high-concept nonsense.
Ritchie seems understandably bored by the mystical element of the film, which opens with a labored setpiece in Nepal. The title character, a young boy with supernatural powers—including the ability to raise the dead, a power that, shockingly, comes into play in the climax—is abducted by Sardo Numspa, a figure of pure evil played with sneering aristocratic condescension by Charles Dance. Unfortunately, Ritchie seems only slightly more engaged with the film’s comedy, exemplified by Murphy’s social-worker protagonist, Chandler Jarrell, being introduced wandering a Los Angeles neighborhood putting up missing-child signs. When he encounters an uptight white man leisurely perusing a copy of Chunky Asses at a newsstand, Chandler looks over the man’s shoulder and mumbles, “Butt Pie is a sequel to a book written called Butt Cake. Very popular at the newsstands: It’s about this butt with cake all over it.”
This is Murphy’s introduction. The Golden Child only has one chance to make a first impression, and it squanders it on its protagonist behaving like a creepy, mush-mouthed bully who can’t even commit to insulting random strangers with any vigor. Murphy is supposed to be a heroic social worker, a finder of lost children (or in the slightly hyperbolic words of the Ann Wilson solo track that plays over the opening credits, “The Best Man In The World”). Yet when we first meet him, he’s behaving like a huge asshole. Is Murphy a selfless hero or a jerk who takes time out of his busy schedule to insult strangers in ways that barely make sense?
The lines are embarrassing enough, but Murphy amplifies the awkward awfulness by delivering them haltingly, as if he started on an improvisational riff about posteriors and sugary baked goods, then thought better of it, but was too deep into his bit to pull out. Murphy is so disappointed with himself, he barely manages to laugh at his own semi-jokes, and then without much conviction. When even Eddie Murphy doesn’t find Eddie Murphy hilarious, something has gone terribly awry, or rather gone awry in an unexpectedly boring fashion, which is even worse.
The unfortunate introduction of Murphy’s character is followed by the only scene in the film that betrays Ritchie’s satirical touch, a setpiece at a cable talk show hosted by a touchy-feely host who peppers Chandler with inane questions, until Chandler snaps and issues an angry plea for information about a missing girl. The scene has an agreeably warped SCTV sensibility, but reveals the disconnect at the heart of the movie: Murphy clearly isn’t engaged in what he’s doing. He’s not listening; he’s just waiting to speak. He’s limply heckling his own movie, maintaining an ironic distance that protects its star while sabotaging the film’s meager prospects.
Chandler is thrust into a world of mystery and intrigue when beautiful stranger Kee Nang (18-year-old model-turned-actress Charlotte Lewis) informs him that according to an ancient prophecy, he is the chosen one, a sinner who will be called upon to save the supernaturally gifted title character. Chandler responds to this staggering assertion not with wonder or awe, but with sarcasm (“That’s a good destiny!” he enthuses) and muddled riffing about how she better stay away from Rastafarians, because the scroll she’s holding looks like a giant joint. Informed that a woman he has been speaking with is 300 years old and her mother was raped by a dragon, he responds with a joyless, “Does that happen a lot where you’re from?” Throughout The Golden Child, Chandler responds to every event with an ugh and a shrug, and the film follows suit. As Dave Kehr observed in his Chicago Reader review of After Hours, deadpan under-reaction to bizarre, threatening situations was a popular convention of 1980s comedy. (The Blues Brothers is the Platonic ideal.) Murphy’s performance here, however, isn’t deadpan so much as dead.
When Murphy debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1980 as a gifted, charismatic teenager, he had a live-wire electricity. Six years later, the light had left his eyes, and it returned only intermittently. Though Murphy was only 25 years old when The Golden Child was released, his lack of engagement makes him seem much older; he somehow looks more vibrant now than he does in the film. The Golden Child officially kicked off the “not trying” phase of his career, which continues to this day. Murphy has been coasting for so long that it now qualifies as a news story when he actually appears to be trying, as in his Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls and his moderately interesting, somewhat out-of-character turn in Tower Heist. (These days, sadly, “moderately interesting” is about the most anyone can expect from him.)
It takes forever for The Golden Child to finally send its protagonist to the Far East to fulfill his destiny. Once there, he shivers and shudders and tells Kee Nang, his perfunctory, unconvincing love interest, “I’m freezing, and I’m not enjoying myself, but I want you to know that I’m going to do my best to find this Golden Child for you.” It’s easy to hear the actor behind the role, though “acting” is an awfully generous way to describe what Murphy does here. “Speaking words while appearing on camera” is a more accurate phrasing.
For a film involving dragon rape and ancient prophecies fulfilled by a smart-ass L.A. social worker, The Golden Child travels an awfully straight path to an unsatisfying happy ending. Apart from the chat-show sequence, the sole moment of joy and inspiration in the film comes in a whimsical, stop-motion-animated scene where The Golden Child uses his supernatural powers to make a Pepsi can turn into a little aluminum man dancing to “Putting On The Ritz.” It’s the only moment in the film that captures the awe and wonder that this kind of family-friendly adventure is capable of when done correctly.
Murphy, Paramount, and audiences all learned the wrong lessons from The Golden Child. Murphy realized he didn’t have to try in order to be fabulously successful commercially. Paramount and other studios learned, again, that audiences didn’t have to particularly like a movie to make it a sizable hit. And children not old enough to appreciate the grittier Murphy of 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Saturday Night Live came to accept that oftentimes, big studio comedies just aren’t funny, but that’s no reason to stop supporting them with parental pocketbooks. As Maslin puts it, “A passive acceptance of a film this feeble sends a message of encouragement to those who made it.”
The Golden Child was released around the time of another mystically charged, East-meets-West action adventure: Big Trouble In Little China, directed by John Carpenter, whom Paramount unsuccessfully attempted to recruit for The Golden Child. In 1986, The Golden Child didn’t just win the box-office battle against Big Trouble In Little China, it devastated the competition, grossing almost $80 million domestically to Big Trouble In Little China’s paltry $11 million. But history is the ultimate judge of a film’s merit, and history has deemed Big Trouble In Little China the clear victor in the war for hearts and minds.
History isn’t always that tidy, however. Maslin was dead-on in calling The Golden Child a non-movie that seems to wash over audiences without making any kind of impression. Except for those it does impress. In one of the film’s sole moments of spontaneity and inspiration, Murphy gingerly refers to his evil arch-nemesis as “Sweet Brother Numsy” shortly before the villain transforms into a demon. That incongruously tender delivery stands out today largely because Kanye West references it on “Gone,” a standout track from his 2005 album Late Registration. So while The Golden Child was a non-movie for the vast majority of its audience, it obviously meant enough to West—who was roughly 9 when the film came out, and consequently the perfect age to love a kid-friendly Eddie Murphy movie—that he wanted to pay homage to it on one of his albums. The Golden Child is a Forgotbuster, but even the most shrugged-off non-event is fondly remembered by someone.
Next time: Godzilla (1998)