Director : Brian Robbins
Screenplay : Eddie Murphy & Charles Murphy and Jay Scherick & David Ronn (story by Eddie Murphy & Charles Murphy)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Eddie Murphy (Norbit / Rasputia / Mr. Wong), Thandie Newton (Kate), Terry Crews (Big Black Jack), Clifton Powell (Earl), Lester “Rasta” Speight (Blue), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Deion Hughes), Eddie Griffin (Pope Sweet Jesus), Katt Williams (Lord Have Mercy), Floyd Levine (Abe the Tailor), Anthony Russell (Giovanni)
In Norbit, Eddie Murphy plays three different roles, including Rasputia, a gargantuan tub of vain, bitter female vindictiveness whose favored phrase is “How you doin’?,” an all-purpose insult, exclamation point, and space filler that is clearly meant to be a hilarious catch phrase for the ages, but grows less and less funny every time it’s uttered. The failure of “How you doin’?” to catch on essentially sums up the failure of Norbit, a broad-based, crude-but-sweet comedy that is so laboriously hit and miss that even the hits don’t seem that funny.
Ever since the success of Coming to America (1988), Murphy has gravitated toward vehicles that have allowed him to play multiple characters (often buried in make-up and latex), an art he perfected in the uproarious dinner scenes of The Nutty Professor (1996), where the Klump family gathered to hash out their problems over mountainous plates of food. Murphy is clearly trying to recapture that magic in Norbit, for which he cowrote the script and coproduced, but what he misses is the effective, underlying humanity that made The Nutty Professor and its lesser sequel work so well. This is not for lack of trying: Murphy is clearly aiming to offset Norbit’s fat jokes, fart jokes, sex jokes, and race jokes with a core of saccharine “and the meek shall inherit the Earth” sweetness, but it smacks too much of effort.
Murphy embodies the meek title character, who stands in for all that is good and therefore abused in the world, by donning square glasses and an afro and sucking his mouth into a state of constant timidity. Norbit is an orphan who was thrown (literally) in front of a Chinese restaurant/orphanage run by Mr. Wong (also played by Murphy). Desperate for a family, Norbit marries Rasputia (Murphy again), who is the opposite of Norbit in every way: where he is small and reserved, she is huge and overpowering; where he is sweet and thoughtful, she is selfish and cruel. If it were only Rasputia who was so terrible, life might not be that bad, but her three hulking older brothers (Terry Crews, Clifton Powell, and Lester “Rasta” Speight) comprise their small town’s local crime syndicate and shake-down racket.
A ray of hope enters Norbit’s life with the return of Kate (Thandie Newton), his childhood sweetheart whom he “married” under the same tree in which Forrest Gump and Jenny enjoyed being like peas and carrots. Taking a page from the tired screenplay cliché book, Kate is engaged to Deion Hughes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a clearly slimy real estate developer who quickly falls in with Rasputia’s brothers in a bid to buy Mr. Wong’s orphanage and turn it into a strip club. Thus, it is up to Norbit to finally become a man and stand up to all those who had previously put him down, win the girl, and save the orphanage.
Norbit certainly has its moments, but they are too few and too far between to justify the rest of the movie’s dead weight. It also doesn’t help that the central character fails to capture much sympathy; with his slumped shoulders, lisping speech, and general air of weakness, Murphy works too hard to show us how pathetic and downtrodden Norbit is. It’s never a good thing when you’re supposed to be cheering for the underdog, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think that he somewhat deserves to be getting all that sand kicked in his face.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 DreamWorks Pictures