Directed by Brian Robbins
As Eddie Murphy gets carried along on the tidal wave of hype for the ghastly Dreamgirls, it’s a sanity-saving relief to have Norbit open and demonstrate what Murphy is good at. This broad comedy features Murphy in three roles: Norbit, the bewildered and bespectacled orphan who grows up into a mild-mannered adult; Rasputia, the steatapygeous shrew or (fat-assed) who intimidates Norbit into marriage; Mr. Wong, the Chinese restaurateur who adopts Norbit and becomes his adult mentor. If Murphy hadn’t already perfected doing multi-character turns in his Nutty Professor movies, Norbit would be enough to confirm his status as the most brilliant comic actor in America. (Murphy plays characters, unlike Sacha Baron Cohen’s one-note Borat which has been extravagantly compared to Peter Sellers. Murphy’s virtuosity surpasses both.)
It’s not the ethnic and gender stunts that prove Murphy’s ingenuity. He has learned (perhaps from Jerry Lewis’ example) to place his gift for mimickry in an appealing context. Norbit takes place in a fairytale setting, an All-American burg called Boiling Springs that combines the small-town settings of It’s a Wonderful Life, Back to the Future and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (the name Norbit is no doubt derived from Eddie Bracken’s Norbert) for a spoof on American gentility which Murphy then integrates with explosive caricatures. It’s a democratizing impulse, less hostile than the Wayans Brothers’ satire Little Man but not far from that underappreciated film’s skepticism about American complaisance. Both Norbit and Little Man express how black comics self-consciously relate to ideas of normalcy. Here, Murphy’s gender/ethnic split embraces a sense of freakishness because Norbit, Rasputia and Mr. Wong are all, also, on a realistic continuum. We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types.
Because Norbit is essentially an occasion for Murphy to exercise his talents and drives, the plot about Norbit reuniting with his childhood sweetheart Kate (the endearing Thandi Newton) against the objections of his wife and her bruising, behemoth brothers, the Latimores (Terry Crews, Clifton Powell, Lester “Rasta” Speight), is only routine. It’s significant that Murphy has moved past the family quandary of The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps (where he was at his most brilliant) into an area of sly social commentary. When Mr. Wong querulously says “Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!” it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused.
Murphy responds to post-Dave Chappelle self-insult comedy with a better, more experienced sense of self-awareness (that is, self respect). Norbit is the meek part of Murphy, yet he wears a perfectly spherical Afro (like the teens in TV’s “What’s Happening”) that is like a halo of blackness—a nostalgic affection for his own youth. And don’t get angry at Norbit’s attempt to off his ogre-wife; its precedents recall Walter Mitty performing the Martha Rayes scenes of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Not misogynist, just a funny function of a frustrated id. Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage. Dig the name, Rasputia. It’s a satirical ghetto moniker that brilliantly suggests a blinkered awareness of the non-black world; a joke worthy of Murphy’s terrific animated TV series “The PJs.”
Director Brian Robbins showed his knack for outrageous/sweet humor in Ready to Rumble. A perfect illustration of his buoyant sketch-style is the water amusement park sequence where Rasputia appears in a bikini and mounts a water slide. Robbins builds-up to a finale so amusingly preposterous than no big finish can be big enough. Impossible mission accomplished.