Eddie Murphy sure is lucky. Currently the toast of Hollywood, he is fortunate that his latest film, “Norbit,” wasn’t released a little earlier. If it had been, all of the good will that he generated as Jimmy Early in “Dreamgirls” would be gone in 60 seconds. This latest reach to the past should signal to Murphy that’s he’s been there and done that – a whole lot better than in this film.
For those who fondly remember such comedic gems as “Coming To America” and “The Nutty Professor,” you’ll recall how Murphy played multiple characters in those films and inserted small slices of humanity into each. In “Norbit,” he revisits this formula, but with disastrous results. The story revolves around Norbit, who was abandoned as a child (thrown from a moving car, no less) and raised by the bigoted and racist Mr. Wong (Murphy).
Mr. Wong ran an orphanage, and one of Norbit’s closest friends was young Kate. The two form such a close-knit relationship that even trips to the bathroom can’t separate them. When she is adopted and leaves the orphanage, Norbit’s world is turned upside down, but soon there will be a new lady in his life. Several years later, two bullies are thrashing our shy and defenseless hero in a schoolyard, when he is saved by the large and imposing Rasputia (again Murphy). Instantly, and inexplicably, they begin a relationship, which leads to marriage. It’s perplexing because there’s not one happy moment EVER shared between the two; nevertheless, the film overlooks that crucial point in the name of comedy.
As if his relationship with Rasputia isn’t bad enough, he also has to contend with her three large brothers, Big Jack (Terry Crews of “Everybody Hates Chris”), Earl (Clifton Powell) and Blue (Lester “Rasta” Speight). The equally imposing threesome run a construction business that serves as a front for their financial shakedown of local merchants. Norbit’s life revolves around serving as a lapdog for his loud and boisterous mate, and trying to stay away from being pummeled when he fails to please her or her crazy brothers.
Just as his situation appears hopeless, his childhood sweetheart Kate (Thandie Newton) returns to town. After selling her business, she now has plans to buy their old orphanage and take over for Mr. Wong. Norbit’s dreams of reuniting with Kate are put on hold when he discovers she is engaged to the hustling con man, Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). While Kate is looking forward to spending the rest of her life with him, Deion is only in it for her money. He teams up with Rasputia’s brothers to scam Kate out of buying Mr. Wong’s orphanage so they can build a strip club in its place. Can Norbit find a way to alert Kate before it’s too late?
Murphy, in his quest to create a United Nation of characters, infuses Norbit with a shred of credibility but never explains what would keep him in such a demeaning and defenseless position, throughout the film. His Norbit is a walking disappointment, a sad more despondent version of “Bowfinger’s” Jefferson “Jiff” Ramsey, even featuring the same voice.
Rasputia is another story entirely, a breathing stereotype that reinforces the myth of the loud, aggressive, overweight Black woman. Under amazing makeup by Rick Baker, Murphy plays her as an incredibly vile woman, who is as offensive as Vera (Della Reese) in “Harlem Nights,” without any ounce of sweetness.
The biggest disappointment is that the crowd reaction to this unimaginative work, based on an idea by both Charlie and Eddie Murphy, was consistent and enjoyable. Featuring jokes about pimping women, threats to pets and small children and domestic violence, “Norbit” is an equal-opportunity offender. It is films like these that make me feel completely out of step with the tastes of the casual filmgoer. For a man of Murphy’s immense talents, “Norbit” is not only a huge disappointment, but also bona fide headscratcher. Murphy may indeed win the Oscar, but this time next year he could also have a Razzie as it’s companion.