Eddie Murphy has been called many things in the course of his career but never a “Holy Man.” So it’s a bit of a surprise to see him cast as a genuine religious guru, albeit one with an appreciation for the humor of life. However, his winning performance cannot salvage a muddled script that descends into 100% pure corn. It’s a shame, because there is considerable merit in this contemporary fable, enough, in fact, to suggest a commercially potent fall release despite inconsistencies of tone and logic. Pic should score strong opening numbers but is likely to stumble because its marketing campaign runs counter to the film’s serious underpinnings and the fact that Murphy actually has the secondary role.
Story’sfocus is Ricky Hayman (Jeff Goldblum), programmer for Good Buy Shopping Network. His tenure hasn’t exactly been stellar and, as the film opens, the new boss has given Ricky an ultimatum to outfit the station with a distinctive image and boost sales within 14 days. He’s desperate to turn things around, but, short of a gift from heaven, the prospects look bleak.
Chance takes the form of G. (Murphy), a man on a spiritual pilgrimage who stops to lend a hand when Ricky and the station’s new marketing director Kate (Kelly Preston) are side-tracked on the freeway with a flat tire. As they drive away, the robed, bald pated do-gooder passes out; subsequent tests reveal a heart murmur and a case of heat prostration, to be treated by two weeks of rest in the shade.
Circumstance makes G. Ricky’s house guest. A further coincidence leads the TV exec to believe the stranger might be the perfect pitch man. The epiphany occurs when Ricky watches his boarder masterfully cure party guest Nino Cerruti of his fear of flying by means of hypnosis and psychology.
A deal is struck and G. goes on the air. Ignoring the cue cards, he talks to the audience about things that really matter, which don’t include the products for sale. Owner McBainbridge (Robert Loggia) hands Ricky his walking papers. But he quickly reverses himself when, wonder of wonders, ratings go up and sales balloon. The combination of getting the straight goods on life and the razzle dazzle of television hucksterism is just the formula to relieve people of their daily worries and cash.
“Holy Man” has a strong premise and Tom Schulman’s script provides the bedrock for a promising examination of contemporary values and the manner in which TV twists them into a pretzel. In that respect, the film recalls such benchmark commentaries on media manipulation efforts as “A Face in the Crowd” and “Network.” But unlike those earlier efforts, the material lacks a biting edge. G. doesn’t really change the medium nor is he tainted by it. Rather, it is Ricky, initially a man sufficiently ruthless to exploit an honest man for shallow goals, who comes to realize that what he’s doing has sapped his humanity and perverted his goals and dreams.
Unfortunately, the stimulus prodding him to do right is the rather banal device of a good woman. Ricky needs to be seen as a decent person by Kate, but the leap of faith involved in reaching a happy ending has more to do with old movies than the story at hand.
Goldblum makes the most of one of his meatiest roles in years. In a setup worthy of Capra, Ricky is a soulless executive who’s been effective at navigating treacherous corporate waters, and his need for position and power has robbed him of the joy of doing the job. The character has the grace of a cat and the implicit menace of a caged animal. It’s a keenly observed performance diluted less as a result of craft than by a script that runs out of fresh ideas.
G. offers Murphy perhaps his most serious acting challenge and the opportunity to prove he doesn’t need schtick to carry a role. It reveals both an openness and vulnerability reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ Chance in “Being There, ” another major influence on the “Holy Man” story.
Director Stephen Herek provides a lively pace and visual polish. The sendups of infomercials and the staccato editing style of TV messages is deftly emulated , with the capper coming when G. turns up the juice on a portable electronic facelifter being pitched by Morgan Fairchild.
Ultimately, “Holy Man” pulls its punches and winds up caught up in the sort of half-truths it chastises. The fact that G. is a black man initially informs Ricky’s actions but is then promptly forgotten reps just one indication of the picture’s reliance on narrative shortcuts. Complex issues of ambition and consumerism taken to televangelic levels aren’t truly addressed or resolved but simply tied up in a box with the message that love conquers all.