When Eddie Murphy lost the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor this year, many people pointed to the horrendous notices his scandalous spring comedy, Norbit, had received. Some even suggested that the film's lack of critical support somehow stained his chances of winning the all important Oscar for Dreamgirls. Many in and out of the media poo-poo'ed such a suggestion, stating that Murphy was mainly known as a comic actor. Since outrageous funny business formed his career, why would a typical big screen laughfest affect his chances at serious acceptance? Obviously, these know nothing nimrods had not actually seen the title in question. If they had, they would have realized that Norbit was indeed an unexpectedly awful film destined to not only set its star's status back several decades, but probably defaced the entire motion picture humor genre for all time. Witless, pointless and completely without a single redeeming characteristic, this sad excuse for hilarity actually makes the Wayans Brothers' Little Man look like a work of unbridled genius. Oh yes, it's THAT bad.
Abandoned when he was a baby and raised by a kind if slightly racist Asian man named Mr. Wong, Norbit was always shy and reserved. Other kids in the combination orphanage/Chinese Restaurant picked on him, with only the comely Kate nice enough to be his friend. When she is finally shipped off to her new adoptive home, Norbit is again alone - that is, until the big, beefy Rasputia takes a liking to him. Soon, our needy nerd is an accepted part of the Latimore clan, a group of gruff goons who rule their small town Tennessee burg with a big, bulky fist. These craven crooks are into extortion, protection, and any other felonious act that can raise them some cash. Eventually, Norbit and Rasputia get hitched, and while she's gorging on food and flirting with her dance instructor, Norbit is out working for the family's corrupt construction company. One day, Kate falls back into his life. She's moved back and wants to buy the old orphanage. She then intends to settle down and run it - and she would like Norbit to help. Of course, Rasputia doesn't like another gal moving in on her man. And the Latimores also want to buy up Wong's place. Their plan? Put a strip club on the property. It's up to our half-pint hero to save the day and deny his criminal clan once and for all.
Like a Jerry Lewis vehicle gone gangrenous, Norbit is a nauseating mess. It finds Eddie Murphy once again treading water, working within the same lame stunt gimmickry that resuscitated his lagging star quality some 11 years ago. Back then, his multi-character turn in The Nutty Professor actually had some intelligence and humorous heft (excuse the pun) behind it. The remake of the classic Lewis farce contained heart, insight, and just a smattering of the scatological material that usually mires most post-modern comedies. By the time the inevitable sequel came along, the crappy Klumps proved that the 'man of many make-ups' conceit had really run its course. Now, seven scattered years later, Murphy is back under latex and foam, reduced to race baiting and egregious ethic slurs for his supposed satiric insight. Norbit is so bereft of laughs that it actually owes the cosmos a couple dozen cleverness IOUs. What passes for jokes are obvious swipes on color, creed and context, and the physical slapstick is so outrageously amplified that it plays like a metaphysical Merrie Melody on massive stupidity steroids. From the opening moment where an infant is randomly tossed out of a car, to the sequence where the rotund Rasputia gets scrimshawed in the blowhole (don't ask), the basic brutality and aggressive abuse garners little except contempt.
The vast majority of the problems here derive directly from the premise and the personalities populating it. We are supposed to see Norbit as a likeable nebbish, his ogre-like wife as a cartoon villain, her bodybuilder bully brothers - the Latimores - as equally extreme baddies, and the rest of cast as genial jests at certain standard archetypes (Italian restaurateur Jewish tailor, etc.). As realized by Murphy, our halting hero is like any number of meek geeks. He doesn't have a character so much as a squint and squeaky voice. Rasputia is no better. More or less an amalgamation of every harsh label ever placed on the obese black woman, this is a man's take on a tyrannical lady. Indeed, she's an insipid interpretation that only avoids the finger-snapping and "no you didn't" noxiousness of the typical "talk to the hand" media mention. Unlike the moments in Professor where Murphy pushed cliché to actually come up with something insightful, this is meanness for the sake of shock. We are supposed to wince at Rasputia's dictatorial demeanor and laugh at her jiggling gal girth. But since we don't really care about Norbit's happiness (Thandie Newton is a nonentity as his old "best buddy" love interest), his wife's outlandish rage has no reasonability. It's just monstrousness for the sake of being shrill. It's the same with her buttheaded brothers. The Latimores are thugs in name only, throwing around their gym-toned tendencies as a way of conveying power. If muscles were meaningful, these dudes would be deadly. As it stands, they are important as plot catalysts only.
And then there's Murphy's corrupt crowning achievement - Mr. Wong. For an African American to successfully play Asian is a stretch, and our clueless comedian basically reduces his performance to a series of purposeful pigeonholes. Forgot the whole "r for l" ideal, this is a new level of intolerance. By making Wong into a walking, talking grab bag of generic junk, he's reduced to a routine collection of one liners and facial features. Clearly conceived as another way to showcase our superstar's arrogant need for attention, he's the final element in an already repugnant entertainment atrocity. When you add in the meandering plot (developed by Murphy and his Chappelle's Show brother Charles after obviously one too many hits off the hookah) that never establishes anything resembling a rooting interest, a pointless extended cameo by Cuba Gooding Jr., a pair of slightly off kilter pimps, and a last act shambles of incredibly forced frenzy (it's a crude combination of chase scene and clipped comeuppance), you're left empty handed and wanting. Rick Baker may indeed win another award for his amazing transformations here, but there is more to comedy than a clever collection of technologically proficient fat suits. If Norbit were a weapon, it'd be a universe destroying atomic bomb. And when you consider that it comes from a man notorious for such fetid flops as The Haunted Mansion, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and Holy Man, that's some fatal fallout.
Presented in a typical 2007 style 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Norbit does look good on the DVD format. The colors are bright and there's a nice level of detail maintained. This is especially true when Murphy trots around in Rasputia's barely-able-to-cover-her-corpulence bikini. The rolls of blubber are so expertly rendered that you can't help but wonder if the actor had a bovine body double.
There is nothing out of the ordinary or worth noting when it comes to the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix offered. There is an overall lack of ambience, and no real directional or spatial elements. The frequent hip-hop and R&B tunes tossed onto the soundtrack, however, do make expert usage out of the multi-speaker set up. Otherwise, this is an average aural setup at best.
The DVD packing provided for Norbit is pretty sparse. The added content offered includes a standard EPK making-of (focusing on how fabulous Eddie Murphy is), a "Man of a Thousand Faces" featurette looking at Rick Baker's prosthetic work (and how wonderful it is to work with Murphy), a similarly styled overview of the stunt's involved in the film (and how hard it is to match Murphy's energy onset), and an infomercial for the Marlon Wayan's exercise program that's part of a subplot, "Power Tap" (oddly enough, featuring very little Murphy). All four provide very little of interest. We're also privy to 14 deleted scenes, none of which give us the least bit of insight into the characters or their circumstances. Toss in the typical collection of trailers and you've got a contractually mandated digital diversion.
Perhaps the most puzzling element in Norbit's ferocious fall from entertainment grace is how a project like this could ever conceivably work in the first place. Without establishing empathy with the characters, and by reducing everyone involved to a series of over-generalized punchlines, the movie continually distances itself from its intended audience. By the time we realize we're never going to care about what happens to these halfwits, the movie still has 50 more minutes to go. Naturally, it continues to ramble, never ever resolving itself. Easily earning a solid Skip It, this is clearly a candidate for 2007's worst film. What's most disturbing, however, is how popular this pathetic excuse for a comedy actually was (netting nearly $100 million domestically). Either fans really wanted to see Murphy back in Playtex drag, or there is something wrong with the mainstream movie going public. Maybe someday in the future the French will continue their confounding streak of cinematic support and declare this undeniable disaster a long lost comedic masterpiece. Until then, Murphy can readily rest on his cash-heavy commercial laurels. He'll definitely be chuckling all the way to the bank. In the case of Norbit, his will be the only laughter heard.
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