We hold this show-biz truth to be self-evident: Fat can be funny. But not all fatty vehicles are created equal.
The one that lumbers and lugs Eddie Murphy around in Norbit is a defective yarn whose nerdy title character (Murphy) was abandoned as a baby at a combination Chinese restaurant/orphanage and reared by its proprietor, Mr. Wong. Upon reaching milquetoast manhood, Nor-bit is bullied into marrying the huge and hugely mean Rasputia (also played by Murphy) but pines for his childhood sweetheart, Kate (Thandie Newton). He'll be occupied for most of the picture with scheming to escape Rasputia and thwart Kate's impending wedding to her sleazy fiance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
We'll be occupied with Rasputia's monstrous mounds of flesh, repulsively crammed into hot-pink velour sweatsuits and a fuchsia bikini that will require years of therapy to purge from our memories.
If the vulgarity of Norbit's broad and pervasive fat-joke comedy strikes you as misogynistic, it's because it is. Unlike the females Murphy portrayed in The Nutty Professor films, Rasputia is a vile comic-book villain, ceaselessly terrorizing her husband and everyone else. Her tantrums are sometimes amusing but too cartoonish to elicit anything like real sympathy for Norbit or any interest in his love life. Why would the beautiful, oh-so-slender Kate be attracted to such a nebbish? Thandie Newton is given little to work with and is not asked to give much in return - other than being Murphy's foil.
The cast is rounded out by cardboard-cohort thugs Terry Crews, Clifton Powell, and Lester "Mighty Rasta" Speight, who want to turn the orphanage into a strip club, and by Norbit's ex-pimp pals Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams (their characters are named Pope Sweet Jesus and Lord Have Mercy), who supply some of the film's few funny moments.
Murphy's hemorrhage of bad movies in recent years was just thankfully staunched by his Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls. Why, barely a few months after regaining respect in such a good film and role, would he throw it away again? Because 1. Dreamgirls may have been a lucky casting fluke, 2. Norbit already was in production, and 3. male comedians can't seem to resist multiple roles involving female fat suits.
He plays three characters here (I won't reveal the third one, which will surprise and baffle you), and the makeup artists led by Rick Baker have done an admittedly terrific job. There's fun in Murphy's morphing - but Murphy is having most of it.
As if the Nutty Professor and Martin Lawrence's Big Momma films weren't enough, grotesque obesity in drag has become a kind of genre in itself, not unlike black-face minstrel shows of yore - something for current and future cultural anthropologists to puzzle over. And what better time than in Black History Month?
Study questions for Murphy and director Brian Robbins: What's the difference between fat black women bashing skinny husbands in Norbit (2007) and Sapphire henpecking Kingfish in Amos & Andy (1947)? Between black-pimp stereotypes now and Stepin Fetchit caricatures then?
Black-shtick slapstick is a phenomenon unto itself. At the preview screening of Norbit, people were laughing their real or padded rear ends off. But I continue to hold out hope that Murphy will one day make a real comedy for the ages.
This one is strictly for the ages of 12 to 14.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barry Paris is a film critic for the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.