The ultimate foul-mouthed Eighties film brat is back. He says he's different, but, Serena Mackesy asks...
Who would you say was the natural heir to the hotly- debated talents of Jerry Lewis? Who could step into the loosely-tied shoes of the gawping clown? No one, least of all our own equivalent, Norman Wisdom, has ever matched the bumbling pathos, the inbred thought processes, the laugh that cracked a thousand glasses. Few have tried. Quite wisely, few have wished to: comedy, since the Sixties, has been sexy, and comedians have wanted us, on the whole, to laugh with, rather than at, them. Until now.

A remake of one of the more successful of the comedian's mediocre portfolio of toe-curling pratfalls is about to hit this nation's cinemas: The Nutty Professor, a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story in which a socially inept academic transforms himself with the help of a home-made brew into a sexually successful monster. The joke - and it was quite a good one - of the original was that Lewis kept finding himself turning into Dean Martin. The current star dons a latex fat suit to play the professor, and strips it away to reveal a monster. Quite an enlightening observation on the monster that lurks within us all. For the brute beneath the skin is none other than Eddie Murphy.

And Eddie Murphy, movie star and erstwhile sex-god, plays none other than the real Eddie Murphy: that bodyguard-touting, foul-tongued loudmouth who succeeded in alienating not only most of the major players in Hollywood, but, in recent years, most of the movie-going public as well.

The question is: do we want him back? Murphy's films haven't exactly been overloading the cinemas' computerised booking systems in recent years, and this is, I think, because he seems these days to be a bit of an anachronism; Will Hay movies haven't been in demand with the studios of late either; nor, for that matter, has the work of Jerry Lewis himself. It's all the same phenomenon: some comedy, and some comedians, wear well, and some are so rooted in their own time that succeeding generations are left at a loss to fathom what their appeal was. Murphy is probably the quintessential Eighties figure, and he doesn't sit well in the solemn, self-exploratory, recession-ridden, guilt-burdened millennialist Nineties.

Think about it: Murphy is one of a crop of stars of the Eighties - Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, Madonna being some of them - who represented in their personae, in their ever-eventful personal lives, everything that that decade was about. Think of Eddie Murphy and a lot of things spring to mind: aggression, swagger, greed, huge sexual appetite, designer labels, flashy accessories, mockery, humiliation. He was the commodities broker of film stars.

And his attitude throughout was similar to many of the roles he played: if they don't like it, well fuck 'em. The Eighties abounded in spoilt brats. Some of them learned lessons from their subsequent downfalls, some continue, increasingly pathetically, to try to perpetuate their behaviour, some are still in prison.

I'm not trying to say that Murphy is without talent. Misdirected it may be, but there's no doubt that the raw ability is there in spades. As a young stand-up, his ability to imitate racial and ideological types was almost spooky in its accuracy. Okay, so Richard Pryor had paved the way for that particular brand of comedy, but Pryor's accidents and illness had left the market crying out for a successor and Murphy filled the bill admirably.

He's also a sterling straight player: 48 Hours and the original Beverly Hills Cop were both classics of their kind. 48 Hours, though, was pre- ego: he still had, at that point, the capacity to work in ensemble. Anyone who can bring out the comic potential in the lovable but wooden Nick Nolte has to have some sort of genius. The man, though, seems to have too much unfettered influence on the projects he gets involved in, too many sycophants telling him he's marvellous. The result has been a string of the sourest possible lemons. The unutterable - and rather offensive in its black-Americans- good, black-Africans-need-teaching sententiousness - tedium of Coming to America was only marginally relieved by the star's showcase imitations of old blokes in the local barber's shop. Harlem Nights apparently emptied cinemas even during preview screenings: the atmosphere of naked dislike among audiences hung over auditoriums like a cloud of sulphur.

Much of his work, too, translates quite poorly to television, a very important consideration in these days of TV culture. A lot of this is down to the swearing, which has those dubbing machines overheating on a regular basis. The TV version of 48 Hours had a segment in which a violent drug dealer turned round and yelled, "Forget you!", a moment of sublime censorial absurdity only matched by Clint Eastwood's "Opinions are like airheads: everybody's got one" at the end of The Dead Pool.

Murphy's middle-class professional parents, who sound like jolly nice, sensible people, are reputed to be upset by all the swearing. He would do well to listen to his mum: there's only so much mileage you can get out of the word "fuck", and, since the new wave started concentrating on more inventive phrases, it all seems terribly dated. A string of unrelieved four-letter words looks a bit lame in comparison with Tarantino's "I'm gonna git medieval on yo' ass".

The Nutty Professor looks suspiciously like a furtherance of the star's attempt at market repositioning. It's hardly a new phenomenon: the original version of this film proved in fact to be Jerry Lewis's way back in from a period in the cold by reuniting with Dean Martin. You never know, we might be seeing Stallone in a remake of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Either that or he's going to have to content himself with the income from the burger franchise.

Over the past three or four years, interviews with Murphy have concentrated on his reformed nature: he talks of how he "got out of control" in the Eighties, and burbles about the wife and family. But can a leopard really change its spots? Is all that misogyny, all that arrogance, really subsumed in humility and thoughtfulness, or is this a cynical market ploy by one of the industry's great dissimulators? Eddie Murphy may be back, but, like red braces and inflated property prices, do we want him?