Eddie Murphy is 62 and looks about 39. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working — but the same can’t be said for his most recent projects.
“Candy Cane Lane” is one of a three-picture deal Murphy has with Amazon, along with the recent, disheartening comedy “You People.” It marks a reunion for Murphy and director Reginald Hudlin, whose “Boomerang,” once upon a time (1992), brought Murphy out of one of those slumps most major movie stars, especially comedy stars, endure along the way. He could use another lift after “Candy Cane Lane,” which isn’t a chore or a travesty or anything. But certainly, it’s less than Murphy deserves.
Screenwriter Kelly Younger based his tediously spun fantasy on the real-life Candy Cane Lane neighborhood of El Segundo, Calif., just south of Los Angeles International Airport. The homeowners go nuts there with decorations every holiday season. Murphy plays a plastics company sales employee determined to win the neighborhood’s deeply competitive contest for best and biggest decorations. In short order, though, he’s laid off, along with half his colleagues, days before Christmas. The imminent Candy Cane Lane scrum is especially important because it comes with a $100,000 prize.
Dad and his youngest daughter (Madison Thomas) chance upon a magical yuletide pop-up store underneath an L.A. cloverleaf. Jillian Bell, as witty as the material permits, portrays the malevolent North Pole outcast elf Pepper, scheming to turn the Murphy character and his family (Tracee Ellis Ross is the generically supportive mother) into tiny little Christmas figurines.
Already, Pepper has miniaturized and confined others to this tiny porcelain fate; Nick Offerman, Robin Thede and Chris Redd provide the voices of the Victorian-era wee ones, though they’re 2023 all the way. Redd’s flirtatious gas-lamp-lighter character spies Ross and suddenly he’s all “hey, baby,” prompting Murphy’s character to say “Hey, that’s my wife!” and Redd replies: “For now, brother.”
The verbal running gag in “Candy Cane Lane” concerns how many times Murphy and others will start a sentence with “I don’t give a —” before Christmas carolers interrupt with “fa-la-la.” Save that PG rating. This is good for a few laughs (“Are you elfin’ kiddin’ me?” Bell asks, late in the game), but the plot’s complications grow tedious long before the family gets around to the frantic, curse-breaking retrieval of five gold rings, an onslaught of Pepper’s minions including some hostile digital swans and geese, and the 11th-hour arrival of Santa Claus.
David Alan Grier sports the Santa beard in “Candy Cane Lane,” though in much of his limited screen time he’s standing around waiting for other people to do or say something. Only intermittently can Hudlin, Murphy and Ross shake this project out of its visually routine business. I realize writing a new Christmas screenplay can’t be easy; to get made, it must check a certain number of predictable boxes. Murphy is game, but only in a few moments with Ross — small-talk scenes not dependent on forced wonderment or reaction-shot gaping — do they appear to relax and enjoy the company. As do we.
Phillips reviews movies for The Chicago Tribune.