Norbit (Eddie Murphy) is not a man to be envied. As a baby, he was dumped outside an orphanage and he grew up to be the wimpiest kid in school, entirely unable to stand up for himself. When he caught the eye of the overweight, bullying Rasputia (Eddie Murphy) and she told him she was his girlfriend, he didn't dare argue. Now a grown man, he's ended up married to her and he's still afraid to talk back.
Life takes a turn for the better when Kate (Thandie Newton), a childhood friend of Norbit's from the orphanage comes back to town. Although she's engaged, her company cheers Norbit up no end and when she tells him she wants to take over the orphanage, he promises to help. But Kate's slimy husband-to-be (Cuba Gooding Jr) and Rasputia's crooked brothers have their own plans, which involve closing the orphanage down, kicking out all the orphans and turning it into a titty bar. And Rasputia herself does not take kindly to some skinny girl hanging around her husband.
Rick Baker's special make-up effects for Norbit are a wonder to behold. He and his team transform Eddie Murphy into a 300 pound woman and an elderly Chinese man, both so convincing that you could probably have a conversation with them without twigging that anything was out of the ordinary. Murphy plays a lot of scenes with himself, sometimes as three different characters, and it's only rarely that I was conscious I was watching special effects.
Murphy and Baker have been working together on and off for nineteen years now. Their first movie was 1988's under-rated Coming To America and I remember joining in the collective gasp of amazement when the end credits revealed that the old, Jewish guy in the barbershop was played by Murphy.
In 1996, the collaboration between comedian and make-up artist reached its high point with The Nutty Professor. Murphy, firing on all cylinders, gave an endearing performance as the portly Sherman Klump, a hilarious one as his thin, mean alter ego Buddy Love and several funny supporting turns as members of the Klump family. The now-classic comedy scenes in which the various Eddie Murphys bickered and farted around the dinner table represented an incredible achievement for both the star and the special effects crew.
The Nutty Professor became one of the most influential mainstream films of the nineties. Aside from spawning a terrible sequel, it inspired numerous other comedians to put on make-up and strap on fat suits. Black comics in particular were quick to follow Murphy into the make-up chair. Martin Lawrence was Big Momma in two comedies, while actor / playwright Tyler Perry became a star playing another big momma in Diary Of A Mad Black Woman and its sequel, Madea's Family Reunion, both so far unreleased here.
And right there is one reason why Norbit is so disappointing. It's been done. Many times over. Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker may have pioneered this little genre and perfected the special effects but they're no longer the innovators - they're copying the people who copied them and added the gender twist. No matter how sophisticated Baker's work is, no one's gasping in amazement this time.
The lack of invention wouldn't matter so much if Eddie Murphy were on top form. At his best, he could certainly play a funnier big momma than Martin Lawrence. Unfortunately, this is second rate Murphy. It's Murphy in his lazy, give-the-audience-what-it-expects mode. He has his funny moments but less than you'd think and if you've seen the trailer, you've already seen a lot of them. If the script doesn't give him much to work with, bear in mind he and his brother Charlie co-wrote it.
Rasputia, the grossly overweight wife from hell is a one-joke character who wears thin very quickly. There's no depth to her at all, she has no quirks - she's just a dreadful, ball-breaking, fat bitch. She might work fine as background humour, like the old men in Coming To America's barbershop or the Klump family members, but there's not nearly enough there to build an entire movie around her. Once the fat jokes have been exhausted, she's just there on the screen, occasionally coming out with funny put-downs but often floundering.
At least she gets a few laughs. Norbit doesn't. I think he's supposed to be a sympathetic nerd like Sherman Klump but he's such a doormat and he has such a whiny, lispy voice, he's simply annoying. The most successful of Murphy's creations is Mr Wong, the orphanage owner. He has a little bit more to him than the others and, crucially, he has less screen time. You don't have a chance to get tired of him.
Of the rest of the cast, Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams have their moments as a pair of small-town pimps, Marlon Wayans has a nice cameo as a keep-fit guru and Thandie Newton is sweet enough in the Jada Pinkett role. God alone knows what persuaded the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr to take a minor bad guy part.
Some of the reviews of Norbit are more entertaining than the film. I think it's fair to say it's pissed off a few critics. Here are some choice quotes from Rotten Tomatoes:
"It probably isn't possible for a single movie to reverse all social progress made since the civil-rights era, but Norbit, the latest broadside from Eddie Murphy, does its best to turn back the clock." Scott Tobias, AV Club
""Norbit" may be the most disturbing, morally repugnant, nightmare-inducing film of the century so far." - Tom Long, Detroit News
"Norbit isn't farce--it's a thoughtless, cancerous, viral, irresponsible pollution whose existence speaks ill of the society that produced it and of any society that would endorse or defend it." Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central
"If I thought hijacking a plane carrying prints of the film and crashing it into Murphy’s house would put a stop to it, I’d go out and buy a box cutter right now." Pete Vonder Haar, Film Threat
Of course, as fun as they are to read, the problem with reviews like that is they make the movie sound more interesting than it is. They make it sound like it might be bad in a colourful or fun way. Like it might be a liberating slap in the face to political correctness. Like it might be worth watching. Norbit isn't spectacularly awful or juicily offensive, it's just half-arsed and not very funny. It was put together by cynical people with dollar signs in their eyes, who thought Eddie Murphy + latex = hit, devoted little more thought to it than that and left the hard work to Rick Baker.