Eddie Murphy once again taps into his inner Jerry Lewis — and his idea of a big, fat, overbearing wife — in “Norbit,” playing a meek hubby and his hopelessly domineering 500-pound-plus wife. Murphy continues his ongoing gambit for playing multiple characters in various shapes, sizes and races, but his story (conceived with brother Charles) lacks even the basic form that held most of “The Nutty Professor” together. Thesp’s fans will flock to this low-ball item that arrives just as he’s in the Oscar spotlight — a coincidence that will only boost early February B.O.
“Broad” may be the obvious word to describe the movie, but it doesn’t begin to suggest its nasty side — its contemptuous depiction of plus-size African-American women.
Narrating his own unfortunate childhood, Norbit (Murphy) describes how his parents literally tossed him outside the Golden Wonton Orphanage just after he was born in 1968. Raised by owner Mr. Wong (Murphy, again), Norbit becomes close friends with cute little girl Kate (China Anderson), who’s then adopted and taken away.
Just as orphan bullies are about to cream the shy Norbit, he’s protected by a hefty 10-year-old girl named Rasputia (Lindsey Sims-Lewis), who effectively wraps him up in her arms and never lets him go.
Now, the adult Norbit finds himself caught in severe wedlock with Rasputia (Murphy, once again), enforced by her three physically intimidating brothers (Terry Crews, Clifton Powell, Lester “Rasta” Speight), who run a shady construction company. More than anything else, “Norbit” depicts four huge black folks basically terrorizing an all-American town that’s somewhat integrated but feels lily-white.
The racial politics of this curious situation are bypassed and deflected by Mr. Wong, who ultimately admits he hates both blacks and Jews — while acknowledging that both groups love Chinese food.Norbit may have found his way out of his domestic hell with the return of Kate (who’s all grown up into Thandie Newton). A pretty reed of a woman next to the repulsive mound of undulating flesh and boobs that is Rasputia (care of Rick Baker’s special effects makeup), Kate offers hope to Norbit until she introduces her fiance, Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). What Kate doesn’t realize is that she’s engaged to a con man who’s about to work a deal with Rasputia’s brothers to get hold of Wong’s orphanage and turn it into “a titty bar.”
Director Brian Robbins, whose specialty is sweet-minded sports movies and most definitely not knee-to-groin slapstick, inserts physical set pieces into the predictable romantic comedy storyline that have no flow or comic inspiration. The most that can be managed is a ridiculous number where Rasputia — in her red string bikini — takes a ride down a water-park slide and nearly squashes little girls.
The more Murphy the actor and writer tries to tap into Lewis, the further he gets from what made Lewis’ best work such a marvel of camera and comedian in tandem. Murphy plays Norbit as mentally slow and even just dumb, but it finally doesn’t ring true, since Norbit, like a really smart guy, is able to turn the tables on Deion.
Where Murphy goes to town is with Rasputia, and even the act of wearing what looks like seven layers of flesh makeup doesn’t stop him from delivering some of his patented drop-dead expressions. Still, it’s not hard to detect this creature as the object of something like pure hate by four male screenwriters. Comedy like this isn’t pretty.
Murphy’s Wong trucks in pure stereotype, but at least Newton counters all of this with some recognizably human behavior and vulnerability. Eddie Griffin turns up from time to time as a loud-mouthed pimp.
Production is a pro studio product through and through, down to the outdoor sets, which are obviously studio backlots.