2007Director: Brian Robbins
Cast: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton
t seems Eddie Murphy just can’t help himself. Weeks after scooping an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls, what could be the dramatic performance of his lifetime, he’s back in theatres playing three characters in this outrageous fatsuit comedy, a grossed-up modern version of a Jerry Lewis movie tinged with purportedly hilarious racism. Norbit is so ridiculous, I blush as I type that I somewhat enjoyed it, but a few guilty belly laughs do not justify the means, and Norbit is far too derivative and lazy to deserve any other status than just plain embarrassing.
Like many a straight-man comedy, Norbit is at its weakest when Murphy is in the guise of the titular character. It’s not that his Lewis impression, refined as the kindly Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor films, is bad—it’s fine, if far too obvious and lacking anything distinct about it. In The Nutty Professor, Klump was at least encased in the Rick Baker fatsuit, but all Norbit gets is a helmet-like afro and thick glasses—supposedly adorable reedy voice aside, there’s just nothing to get you caring about him. He’s simply too lame, too timid to rebel against the tyranny of his titanic wife Rasputia (Murphy again, mixing blubbery makeup and drag this time around) to claim the heart of his real love Kate (Thandie Newton, uneasily trapped in another thankless role), and so his obvious triumph against all odds fails to convince.
Considering how much time is devoted to the titanic harridan Rasputia, it’s clear that even Murphy (who co-wrote the film with his brother Charlie, of Chappelle’s Show) is aware of his hero’s dramatic shortcomings. At best, Rasputia is a one-joke character—nonetheless, I found myself furiously willing her to re-appear whenever she was off-screen. Her appeal lies not in the ridiculous makeup obscuring Murphy, a comedic convention that gets less and less funny every time he employs it, but in Rasputia’s vile obtuseness, her willful ignorance of any wrong she might have committed. As she tries to cram herself into her car, Norbit suggests she might be having trouble due to her size; one withering glance from his wife has Norbit stammering that the car must have shrunk. It’s not funny because she’s fat, it’s funny because she’s terrifying!
However, it’s not funny enough. The rest of the supporting players manage to escape with a couple funny lines and their reputations intact. A surprising standout is Eddie Griffin, playing a former pimp stuck running a rib shack and unable to update himself to legitimate business. Griffin must have played the comic pimp a thousand times before, usually with mirthless effect, but somehow here the concept works, granting the audience a few relatively shame-free laughs. Comically bad is Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr., here reduced to playing a preening villain who barely registers as a threat even to Norbit, which is certainly saying something. Finally, Murphy (again) is downright offensive as Mr. Wong, Norbit’s adoptive Chinese father, a wincingly awkward portrayal that ranks alongside Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in terms of charmless stereotyping. Except it’s the 21st century, so now it’s knowingly ironic. Or so some may allege.
Late on in the film, Big Jack, one of Rasputia’s equally colossal brothers (Terry Crews, a man the size of a refrigerator with a deft comic touch) answers his cell phone during a church service and is angrily shushed by a man in front of him. Jack, unperturbed, punches the man unconscious and continues his conversation. Minutes later, I was still laughing at this—because that’s the kind of broad, basic humor I can get on board with. Sadly, Norbit is too feverishly busy aiming to be innovatively distasteful to indulge in far simpler, nobler laughs. If Eddie Murphy had put down the fatsuits and attempted to craft characters that register as human beings, Norbit could have been the guilty pleasure it so strives to be. As it is, it’s a no-go.
Norbit is currently in wide release.
By: David Sims
Published on: 2007-03-30