I was a kid when I first saw "Harlem Nights" and I laughed my ass off. In fact, some moments made me lose it so much I had tears in my eyes and my stomach hurt.
It was the blessed time of the early 90's where every Saturday night, they aired a comedy, and since they were all from the 80's, I was familiar with John Candy, Matthew Broderick Dan Aykryod, Dudley Moore, Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor before all my current favorite (Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro). "Harlem Nights" was the typical movie they would air on Saturday and the premise of Murphy and Pryor sharing the screen together was a delight even for a kid who knew nothing about their stand-up background.
And I laughed, I laughed, I laughed... I'm not sure I got everything in the film but I could easily enjoy five 'serious' minutes by reminiscing about the funny scenes I saw before. And there weren't many serious five minutes anyway. Besides, after the unforgettable quarrel between Della Reese and Eddie Murphy and the hilarious cameo of Arsenio Hall as the crying man, the film could have been gone all Bergmanian at the end, I would have loved it all the same.
Speaking of Della Reese, it's her sad passing that encouraged me to give this film another look and I enjoyed it as I usually enjoy it whenever I watch it. I have seen many 80's classics before and I know some have aged pretty badly, check my review of "Like Father, Like Son" and "She's Out of Control", they were movies I enjoyed as a child but they're objectively bad. Still, I don't think I will ever be able to put "Harlem Nights" and 'bad' in the same sentence. And why should I?
You'll notice that many other reviews mention the critics, and praise the film even in a 'defensive' way, it's perhaps one of the most memorable things about it, its ill-reception. Both Ebert and Siskel found something unpleasant about Eddie Murphy's directorial debut, whether the use of profanity or that the film possesses the texture and costumes of the 30's gangster pictures without the substance... but then again, they complain about the lack of any juicy dialogue from masters of comedy Pryor or Foxx.
I won't be the critics of critics, but I think there was an overreaction as Eddie Murphy's then-popularity had raised more expectations than his film could have ever satisfied. Granted the film isn't "Trading Places" or "Coming to America", what was so blatantly bad about the screenplay or directing to deserve a Razzie nomination? The directing is 'nothing special' in the worst case and the bad writing maybe 'uninspired' at times, but I fail to see why Murphy was Razzie-nominated. Then again, even "Scarface" and "The Shining" were, which I think speaks for itself.
"Harlem Nights" is a nice, enjoyable movie where Eddie Murphy doesn't overplay his street-smart shtick, where Pryor is the nice guy and sometimes a touching father-figure who tries to keep things in control and Redd Foxx is the subject of a great running-gag involving his poor sight, his interactions with Della Reese are as enjoyable as Murphy's. In fact, they all have great chemistry all together. And for all its black casting, white actors also play funny and entertaining parts.
Michael Lerner steals the show as a believably intimidating mobster with then-"Different World" star Jasmine Guy as his mole. I reckon her character could have been more developed, but she inspired an interesting twist on the usual femme-fatale trope... and prevented the film from a predictable romantic subplot. And Danny Aiello plays with perfection the corrupt cop, his role seems limited, but he carries on with such arrogance and self-confidence we just love to hate him.
"Harlem Nights" has all the ingredients: cops, thugs, fixed gambling bets, boxing, music halls, heists but these are only decorative aspects, the film is more about relationships and interactions that go from funny to touching, from violent to... well, funny again. If the film isn't flawless, it never goes so bad it deserves to be bashed. I'm pretty sure the film will age better for those who didn't like it first.
In a way, maybe the fact that was so badly received will encourage people to watch it and say "hey, it's not so bad!" it's better than "not so bad", you better believe it. The film is a little cult classic not devoid of charm and it's certainly breathtaking if we speak about the way it makes you laugh. Murphy was so shocked by the reception he didn't want to watch it for a long time, if I could meet him, first thing I would tell him is that his movie was good and he's got nothing to be ashamed of.
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