Directed by Brian Robbins / Written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn
A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 102 mins.
Norbit/Rasputia/Mr. Wong: Eddie Murphy / Kate: Thandie Newton / Deion Hughes: Cuba Gooding, Jr. / Pope Sweet Jesus: Eddie Griffin / Buster: Marlon Wayans / Earl: Clifton Powell / Blue: Lester "Rasta" Speight
Directed by Brian Robbins / Written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn
Watching Eddie Murphy’s new comedy NORBIT is akin to being forced to compete in a physically dangerous extreme sport that you have no desire whosoever to participate in. The film is a cruel, offensive, and categorically wretched cinematic endurance test of will and fortitude. Being in a theatre for all of its 102 minutes is arguably less torturous than being tied to a chair and sadistically accosted by one of the psychopaths from the HOSTEL films.
NORBIT is a cheap, worthless, unfunny stink bomb that showcases a veteran comedic actor making a novice mistake of being in a film that’s disastrously terrible in every conceivable way. The very fact that the film does not even have the decency to be less than 90 minutes is an insult in itself.
There is not one joke out of the slimy, poop infested toilet bowl that Eddie Murphy and company don’t scrap out here in abundance. Firstly, it assumes that famous male actors performing in drag is cutting edge and remarkably humorous (note: Martin Lawrence couldn’t do it in the dreadful BIG MOMMA series, so why try again?). It also assumes that a comic actor playing more than one role is inherently funny, which – if handled incorrectly – can either be laughably entertaining or abruptly backfire. Lastly, it uses fat people as a cheap reason for atrocious, offensive sight gags.
Morbid, life-threatening obesity is not funny. Trust me, as a person that has battled with weight issues for most of his life, being well above your determined and ideal weight is nothing to smile at. When films like this make fun of fat people for the sake of entertainment, then there is something undeniably cruel-hearted and petty about it. Yes, there have been other successful comedies that have utilized heavy-set characters to tell their stories, but those films never laughed at their characters; they laughed with them. Movies likes SHALLOW HAL (an underrated Farrelly Brother comedy) and – ironically – Eddie Murphy’s first NUTTY PROFESSOR film dealt with obese figures, but those films had a certain level of sympathy and understanding for them. We also liked them. After suffering through NORBIT, it is clear that the overweight female character in it exists primarily for an excuse to laugh at her because she is an abomination. There's just something foul about that.
If you don’t know, Murphy plays the character under what seems like pounds of Rick Baker’s astoundingly realized rubber prosthetics. As a matter of fact, the makeup is so convincing that it should make the film a categorical shoe-in for an Oscar in the category. This may be the first film I’ve seen where the cellulite roles of blubber looked totally convincing. Yet, while watching this utter marvel of special effects occur on camera, it ultimately left a hideous taste in my mouth. Consider: countless hours – and an Academy Award winning makeup man – were squandered on this film when other for deserving works could have been focused on. Hyperbole aside, that’s a shame of astronomic proportions.
This trainwreck of disgusting, amoral excess stars Murphy as the title character Norbit, who looks very much like a black, poor man’s Napoleon Dynamite. Norbit is a skinny, insidiously shy, irreproachably geeky and a painfully awkward guy. His childhood was not very kind to him. He was abandoned as a baby (in an opening scene that is borderline tasteless; his infant body is thrown out of a moving car onto a gravel road, always good for a laugh). Baby Norbit is picked up by Mr. Wong (Murphy character number two, all done in white face complete with slanty-eyed makeup). He runs what every Asian man in Tennessee has – a restaurant/orphanage. However, he is particular about the ethnicity of the babies he picks up. When he realizes that Norbit is African, he pitifully states, “I won’t be able to give you away at all.” Ho-ho. He also calls the African baby the ugliest he’s ever seen, which is only the beginning of this film’s awful, gut-churning penchant for vindictiveness.
Needless to say, Wong raises the young Norbit and as he grows older he falls very easily for a fellow 5-year-old girl named Kate. The two become such an item that they do everything together. They even - as Murphy’s voice-over narration explains and a creepy shot in the film displays - poop together. Anyhoo’, young Kate unfortunately gets whisked away at nine when she is adopted. Norbit’s nerdy heart is broken, but he picks himself up in hopes of meeting someone new to start his life with.
Then he meets Rasputia.
She is one big, bad momma. When she introduces herself to Norbit at a playground, she is ginormous, even for a girl of 10. Their meet cute is odd enough: she manhandles two older teens from bullying him. After she makes mincemeat out of the two youths, she asks Norbit if he has a girlfriend. When she finds out that his single, she makes a decision right then and there that Norbit will be her new boyfriend…whether he wants to or not.
Ridiculously, the kind and sweet Norbit marries the vile Rasputia, perhaps partially because her three equally gigantic brothers, Big Jack (Terry Crews), Earl (Clifton Powell) and Blue (Lester “Rasta” Speight) kind of coerce him into it. They also tell Norbit that if he does anything to make their sister unhappy, then he will be in a world of pain. Rasputia and her brothers are real criminals. They essentially run a construction company that is basically a front for corruption and extortion. Their main ambition – after achieving city-wide domination – is to get control of Wong’s restaurant/orphanage and turn it into…a strip club. This builds to the film's only legitimate chuckle - the name of the club.
However, Kate (the beautiful and utterly wasted Thandie Newton) returns after a long absence and reveals to Norbit that she has plans to buy the orphanage and run it on her own. However, she has a few stumbling blocks, like her on-again, off-again relationship with Norbit, her secretly scheming fiancé Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr., in another embarrassing turn) and the devilish Rasputia herself. Meanwhile, a couple of pimps are thrown in for good measure. They are Pope Sweet Jesus (Eddie Griffen, dreadfully unfunny here) and Lord Have Mercy (Katt Williams, equally horrible). They facilitate the script's need for a lot of talk about bitches, whores, and pimping, not to mention that they help give Norbit an ill-timed makeover in hopes of him rekindling a romance with Kate.
NORBIT’s borderline predictability is not its only undoing. The story methodically chugs away with mind-blowing inevitability. We know that Norbit will fall back in love with Kate, that Kate will reciprocate love back, that Deion will emerge as a two faced bastard, that Norbit will have to prove that to Kate, and that Rasputia will do anything to manipulate Norbit for her own wishes. Again, this is not radical material here. No, the most head scratching and flabbergasting part of NORBIT is its wanton desire to be crass and repulsive.
No expense is spared at showing how many fat jokes and pratfalls the audience is served up because of Rasputia. Several scenes are feeble and dead-on-arrival for laughs and display a complete desperation. We see a horse cry – literally – from Rasputia's weight. We also see a gross moment of her getting a bikini wax, followed by a moment where she goes swimming and shows off her tiny bathing suit (the attendant has to ask if she wearing bottoms because her belly obscures it). We also witness other childish and stupid sights, like her beyond-large breasts hitting the steering wheel, her plowing right through a table while chasing Norbit, and in the film’s would-be hilarious montage, she climbs to the top of a waterslide and barrels down it with RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES blaring in the background. She then hurtles through the air like a missile and ends up in a nearby pool, completely draining it as a result of her girth.
Murphy plays this character as a offensive caricature. Rasputia is cold-blooded, ruthless, foul-mouthed, and contemptuous. She has no redeeming qualities at all. Murphy has played plump roles before, as he did with Sherman Klump, but the difference there was that Klump was a likeable and affectionate creation. He created a real resonating character; with Rasputia she’s a one-note monster and perhaps the single most annoying on-screen personality in a long time.
At least his Norbit is a lispy dork that is affable to a degree. The same can’t be said about Mr. Wong. Sure, the makeup here is as fantastic as it was for Rasputia, but Murphy plays Wong with a revolting adherence to bad Asian stereotypes. Funny, but if a white comedian played a crusty, bitter, and potty mouthed African character in black face, then he would appear like racially prejudiced personality. Yet, when Murphy does it playing up to incredulously foul Asian stereotypes, he thinks it’s a hoot. I wanted to shut my eyes and assume the fetal position every time he spoke as Wong. It’s like I time traveled to watch some bad, Vaudevillian act 100 years removed from any progressive level of acceptance of other ethnicities.
And what the hell is a gorgeous, luminous, and gifted actress like Thandie Newton doing in this mess? How can one go from giving an Oscar nomination worthy performance in CRASH to this filth? I am less surprised by Cuba Gooding Jr’s participation here. It seems like eons ago that he won an Oscar for his performance in JERRY MAGUIRE. It’s sad and pathetic to see a once promising actor reduce his standards and morals to appear in films like CHILL FACTOR, SNOW DOGS, and the unreservedly bad BOAT TRIP, thus ruining his reputation. Gooding can now add NORBIT to his resume of humiliation. Sorry, but it appears that his career peaked with "show me the money."
NORBIT revels in complete and imbecilic mediocrity, which is all the more damning when one considers that Eddie Murphy co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in the film in no less than three equally unfunny parts. There is no doubt that Murphy – many years ago – was a comedic force to be reckoned with. NORBIT strips all of that away with one effortless stroke by playing up to offensive jokes that include orphans, racist portrayals of Asians and overweight women, and a slew of other flatulence-laced sight gags that are developed and implemented with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard level of annoyance. By appearing in yellow face as a acid-tongued and bigoted Asian and in a huge rubber suit as a reprehensible, stereotypical fat woman with anger management issues, Murphy here seems insistent on engaging in a parade of the monumentally unfunny. There is not one amusing or redeeming quality about NORBIT. After a series of unattainably terrible duds like A VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH, DADDY DAY CARE, I, SPY, and SHOWTIME, it was momentarily relieving that Murphy garnered critical respectability with his Oscar nominated work in last year’s DREAMGIRLS.
NORBIT all but destroys that short-lived notoriety.