A lot of longtime Eddie Murphy fans – myself included – have felt like he’s gotten off track. The edgy, electric Murphy who rose to fame in movies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop gave way to the slightly-toned-down-but-still-hilariously-raunchy Murphy of Nutty Professor fame. That film and its sequel proved the comedian could be versatile and funny without overdosing on profanity. But then that Murphy evolved into the softer, gentler Murphy who did family-friendly pictures like Dr. Doolittle and The Haunted Mansion, or badly misconceived duds like Pluto Nash. (His voice work in the Shrek films was the only real bright spot on his resume for six years.) Suddenly, though, it seems like Eddie Murphy is back. His role in Dreamgirls successfully showed a more mature side of his talents, and his latest, Norbit, takes him back to the style of Klumps humor he specializes in. That the jokes in Norbit ultimately play to diminishing returns doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a step in the right direction.
As he often does, Murphy plays multiple characters here. The main one is Norbit, a nerdy guy who was raised in a Chinese restaurant/orphanage by one Mr. Wong (also Murphy). During his years at the orphanage, Norbit befriended a little girl named Kate, and he was crushed when she got adopted and moved away. Not long after, he met an aggressive, overweight girl named Rasputia, who literally made him her boyfriend. Now adults, Norbit and Rasputia (Murphy again) are married, but not so happily. She continues to dominate him with her bossy, demanding personality. For example, she rudely accuses him of moving up her car seat when it’s clear that her expanding girth is causing the tight squeeze.
Then Kate (Thandie Newton) comes back into the picture. She returns to town with a pretty-boy fiancée named Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and a plan to buy the orphanage from Mr. Wong. Rasputia’s brothers, who have long been trying to get the deed from Wong so they can open a strip club, team up with conniving Deion to seize control of the property. Norbit tries to stop them, re-falling in love with Kate in the process. Rasputia, meanwhile, has no intentions of letting her man end up in another woman’s arms. You know that old saying about hell having no fury like a woman scorned? Well, this woman wrote the book on fury.
The film’s screenplay was co-written by Murphy, who clearly wants to recapture the rowdy/sweet comedy he brilliantly pulled off in films like Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. He includes the requisite love story to temper the raunch factor and again vividly plays multiple characters, wearing make-up prosthetics that render him nearly unrecognizable. This is undoubtedly the kind of thing he does best, especially the multi-character stuff. From his earliest days on “Saturday Night Live,” Murphy has always been brilliant at creating original – and memorable – comedic personas. This time, he plays a nerd, an Asian, and a morbidly obese harpie. That’s what I call range. There’s joy in seeing him do this kind of thing after a too-long absence from it.
A lot of this material is funny, some of it downright hysterical. There’s no doubt that you’ll find several big laughs here. That said, the movie doesn’t sustain the laughter. Norbit is extremely funny for the first half-hour, kind of funny for the second half-hour, and not very funny at all in the final half-hour. The problem is that the jokes often become repetitive, most notably the ones that come at the expense of Rasputia’s physical appearance. I laughed initially when she appeared in lingerie, then laughed again when she wore a bikini on a water park outing. The joke started to wear thin when she donned hot pants and a tight shirt, and by the time she put on a stripper’s outfit, it had worn out completely. Her outrageous behavior loses its effect, too. A character like this is best in small doses. When she’s in more than half the film, her one-note persona eventually falls flat. (Imagine how tiresome a whole movie of the horny Grandma Klump would be and you get the idea.)
I also have to admit feeling kind of worn down by Norbit’s mean streak. One could have a field day dissecting the meaning behind the racial stereotypes and fear of oversized women that clearly drives the plot, but I won’t do that. (Hey, comedy can push an envelope; I’m okay with it.) However, there’s a lot of hostility on display here. If I had a dime for each time someone – male or female – got called a “bitch,” I’d have been able to feast on expensive movie theater concessions all day. There’s additional name-calling, insult-trading, sexual humiliation, and physical abuse on display. Norbit clearly pushes the envelope of the PG-13 rating. It also ramps up the nastiness just a bit too far. A general rule of thumb: nasty is funny, mean is not.
I guess that this review has focused on the negatives, which might make my half-decent star rating seem out of left field. I really don’t think Norbit is a bad movie. As I said, there are some extremely funny scenes here. As an Eddie Murphy fan, I also appreciated seeing him abandon the family-friendly stuff and go back to taking risks. In that sense, Norbit is ultimately more satisfying than, say, Daddy Day Care. This is the Murphy I want to see more of – the one who creates offbeat characters and delights us in his ability to morph into them.
So at least he’s on the right track. If nothing else, the movie proves that years of PG-rated kiddie stuff hasn’t dulled his edge. There are moments in Norbit when you can feel the old magic coming back. Murphy is just rusty, that’s all, and now that he’s finding his way again, let’s all hope that his next comedy sustains itself a little better over the course of its running time.
( 1/2 out of four)
Norbit is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Norbit
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