Judge Brett Cullum hasn't used the phrase "odious piece of frippery" in awhile, but it's good to keep it in circulation.
Rasputia: How you doin'?
Norbit cost Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) an Oscar. The comedian was riding high on his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2007 when this gross-out black comedy came along and ruined all the good will he had garnered from the nod by being racist, sexist, and mean-spirited. Although somewhat profitable at the box office, Norbit may force Eddie Murphy into the professional limbo his career was in before he came back into the spotlight thanks to supporting Beyonce (The Pink Panther) and Jennifer Hudson (American Idol) in the acclaimed movie musical Dreamgirls. Is Norbit really that bad? As a matter of fact, it is.
Facts of the Case
Norbit (Eddie Murphy) is a down on his luck, nerdy orphan who seems destined to be picked on. He has married an obese monster named Rasputia (also Murphy) who abuses him to no end. Things begin to look up when he is reunited with Kate (Thandie Newton, Crash), a friend from the orphanage who has come to buy it from the retiring Chinese owner Mr. Wong (again Murphy). But wait! There's a swindle happening in the background as Rasputia and her three bully brothers are determined to get the orphanage and turn it into a strip club.
The central premise and inspiration for the entire film revolves around husband abuse. Eddie and Charles Murphy saw a You Tube clip of a woman beating up her spouse, and sought to make that the sole theme of Norbit. Perhaps there could be humor in these situations and characters, but they set the bar so low for themselves it doesn't ever aspire to be more than the laziest of projects. The film hacks together The Jerk and Big Momma's House to pit an orphan against a fat lady. If you're up for that sort of "low concept" then Norbit fits the bill nicely. Babies thrown from moving cars, small dogs being run down by a car, fat women breaking children's rides at a water park—these are the things Norbit wants to make funny.
There is one man who is the star of Norbit, who seamlessly creates three strikingly different characters. Yes, the comic mastermind behind this movie is none other than Academy Award winning make-up artist Rick Baker (X-Men: The Last Stand, Hellboy, The Nutty Professor). Between his creations, some very good CGI, and the essential visual effects, Norbit looks seamless. Nobody will ever guess when watching it how much work went into making it possible for Murphy to marry himself, slap himself, become a 300 pound black woman and an old skinny Chinese guy in the same scene. It's a real visual feat that allows Norbit to hit the screen. If there's anything to admire, it's how far these effects have come since Murphy first dabbled in multi-characters for Coming to America.
There's a great cast assembled, and you'd think they'd all be game for some seriously funny comedy. Thandie Newton gets to let her hair down and just be a happy, attractive woman. Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris), Clifton Powell (Ray), and Might Rasta (Menace II Society) play the three roided out brothers of Rasputia. Cuba Gooding Jr. (Academy Award winner for Jerry MacGuire) pops up, as well as Eddie Griffin (Undercover Brother) and Katt Williams (Epic Movie).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With all these great technical people and actors assembled, what the hell happened to Norbit? Eddie Murphy wrote the screenplay with his brother Charles (Vampire in Brooklyn), and nobody dared tell them the script was a mean-spirited mess. Eddie also served as a producer, so he was never reigned in. Everyone thought he could pull off something similar to what he did in The Nutty Professor), but he reduces each character to only skit level dimensions. Norbit is like a grown up Urkel, Rasputia is an overweight harpy with one volume setting at extra loud, and Mr. Wong is a racist Chinese man. We don't like any of the characters, and they have none of the charm the Klumps had in his previous movies. The film mercilessly plays on fat women, stereotypes, and crass bits that don't come off as funny. Instead of being a comedy, it becomes a horrifically graceless romp without anything to redeem it. It prances around being vulgar as if that alone is enough to make us laugh.
Despite all of the low aspirations, the DVD for Norbit is nicely executed. The transfer is strong with bright colors and hardly any traces of digital noise or error. Every roll of fat is shown cleanly thanks to the digital process, though you may wish they had blurred more of it. The surround sound isn't as rich as it could be, but music comes across nicely with plenty of thump. There's enough featurettes to make you think the disc is overloaded, but most of the pieces are simply studio propaganda with testimonials on what an honor it was to work with Eddie Murphy. Watching Thandie Newton fall all over herself to describe his comic genius seems a bit much after sitting through the feature. There is a mock informercial provided by Marlon Wayans for an aerobic tap routine which is mildly more humorous than most of the movie. We're given a lot of insight into how the movie was made using a series of body doubles and fat suits. Is it comforting to know a real woman played Rasputia, and most of the time Murphy's head was computer grafted onto her?
Norbit is a comedy without much funny about it, and that's its worst crime. It proves outlandish, and even a technical marvel when you consider the artisanship that goes into making these characters a celluloid reality. But what a shame talented people came together to make such a forgettable and odious piece of frippery. In an interview I saw Murphy say he had hoped to get Mo'Nique (Phat Girlz) for Rasputia, but worried that would make things even darker. Perhaps his instinct was right, but I would love to see someone like Mo'Nique turn Rasputia into a real woman rather than the schtick Eddie delivers. The main problem with Norbit is Eddie Murphy plays three characters, and we don't believe in any one of them as a real person.
Guilty of being a soulless mean-spirited comedy, Norbit proves even the most talented actors will stoop low enough if the money is right. Murphy lost his Oscar and all respect with this one easy to loathe movie.
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