Norbit proves my contention that Eddie Murphy is likely to be awarded an Oscar in a couple weeks less for the brilliance of his performance in Dreamgirls than for the simple fact that he’s less awful in it than in most of his screen appearances. After all, by comparison with the three performances he gives in Norbit, he comes across like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson all rolled into one in Dreamgirls.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Norbit isn’t your ordinary bad movie. It’s much worse than that. This is a bad movie for the ages—the sort of thing that makes The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) look pretty good. It makes the legendary Pootie Tang (2001) look like a classic. In terms of production values, Norbit actually resembles Pootie Tang, which is to say that it looks like it cost a good $1.95 to make. Whatever money was spent on this … thing must have gone into the makeup from Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studio that transforms Murphy into Norbit, Norbit’s obese wife, Rasputia, and Mr. Wong, who runs the orphanage where Norbit grew up. Everything else about the film is cheap beyond words, including the whole concept.
The screenplay—for which Murphy, as coscenarist and coproducer, has no one but himself to blame—is predicated entirely on three simple ideas: Henpecked (in this case, abused) husbands are funny; a guy made up as a Chinese man saying words like “gorilla” as “gorirra” is a hoot; a man playing a 400-pound woman is sheer hysteria. This last, in particular, is an unfortunate symptom of modern “comedy,” which works on the belief that nothing spells funny like someone in a fat suit—unless, of course, it’s someone in a fat suit suffering from flatulence. That’s the ne plus ultra of comedy.
Setting aside—for the moment—questions of taste, the biggest central problem here isn’t that every gag in the film is a variation on one of these three concepts; every gag is one of these three concepts repeated and repeated and repeated. If Rasputia dressed in some kinky costume jumping on top of Norbit and breaking the bed is unfunny once, it’s just plain painful by the fifth time. If Rasputia cramming herself into a mid-1960s MG (what’s been done to “pimp out” this classic sports car shouldn’t happen to a Ford Pinto) is dreadfully unfunny once, it’s “take a hostage” bad by the third or fourth time. If Mr. Wong mangling English while making outrageous racist pronouncements is queasily unpleasant once … well, you get the idea.
Making this worse is the very concept of the Norbit character. He looks like a bad caricature of Bill Cosby circa 1970, and is played like Jerry Lewis in full mawkish moron mode. It didn’t work for Lewis (unless, of course, you write for pretentious French film magazines and have decided he represents the collective unconscious of America), and it doesn’t work for Murphy. Norbit is just too much of a victim to care about, and he’s unwisely never given the pivotal moment where he really stands up for himself.
Bad as all this is, there’s the storyline itself. It’s the old wheeze about the innocent young woman (Thandie Newton, who needs another role like the one she had back in 2002 in The Truth About Charlie) with the scummy fiancé who’s out to defraud her. (As the fiancé, Cuba Gooding Jr. laboring under the delusion that he’s Terrence Howard). Meanwhile, the long-suffering nebbish (Norbit) who really loves her stands on the sidelines. There’s even the innocent participation of the nebbish, complete with the kind of resultant misunderstanding on the girl’s part, that tells us that she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together.
But really all of this pales in comparison with the sheer tastelessness of it all and the sense of racism, misogyny and perhaps even self-loathing that lies beneath it. (A few years back political activists managed to get 60-plus-year-old Charlie Chan movies—films where a Chinese character was well-spoken and intelligent—banned from the Fox Movie Channel on the strength of the fact that Chan was portrayed by white actors. So where is the outcry against Eddie Murphy in “yellow face” portraying a brazenly offensive, hateful caricature?) Are we supposed to buy that it’s all in good fun when every single character in Norbit is a grotesque caricature? Does Murphy think that this is subversive social satire? If so, what exactly is being satirized? Is it satire to propel an obese woman down a waterslide and through a wall? I don’t think so. I think it’s simply Murphy in love with what he perceives as his own comic genius—and an arrogant belief that he can do no wrong, despite a catalog of onscreen evidence to the contrary. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language.