Poor Eddie Murphy! Not only did he not win an Oscar last week, despite being the bookings favourite (and you have to reckon his chances of getting another shot are slim), but many commentators blamed the release of Norbit during the campaign for his fall from grace. Whether or not Academy voters would have been likely to see it, the reviews were poisonous. Not only was the movie unfunny, they said, but it was also sexist, fatist, possibly racist and probably homophobic.
I confess, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the flick myself after that - although plenty of people were undeterred. It was the number one movie in the US a couple of weeks ago, and with box office over and above $70 million US, it's already made more money than four of the five Best Picture nominees.
The first thing to say about Norbit is that it's a misnomer. The film is named after Murphey's hapless overgrown orphan, a clueless loser who seems incapable of thinking for himself, and somehow winds up married to the gargantuan Rasputia (also played by Murphy, courtesy of Rick Baker's incredible full body make up). It's Rasputia who dominates the film. Not only because she doesn't let Norbit get a word in edgewise, but because she's a grotesque comic gargoyle, a fully fledged monster. Calling this movie Norbit is a bit like calling King Kong 'Jack Driscoll', or Jaws 'Matt Hooper'. It just doesn't make sense.
In the US many critics took offence at the film's irredeemably unPC approach to fat. It is, after all, Rasputia's defining characteristic. But there are others: she's a bully, egotistical, a liar, adulterous and conniving. Does the movie imply that all fat people are that way? I don't think it does, but it does take aim at soft (extremely soft) comic stereotypes in a way that makes Shallow Hal look, well, deep.
I may as well confess I quite enjoyed Rasputia, with her monstrous sense of entitlement, her hypocritical religious scruples and her vain affectations (she changes hair style pretty much every scene). She's so over the top it seems crazy to take it too seriously. After all, comic stereotypes endure precisely because there is some recognition there. In Britain this kind of character would probably be cast as a mother-in-law, or a pantomime dame (Les Dawson would recognise her instantly). Norbit cuts closer to the bone because Rasputia is sexually voracious, but Norbit is the quintessential hen-pecked husband, as well as a black Norman Wisdom or Jerry Lewis.
But having come pretty close to defending this movie I now have to tell you it didn't make me laugh. Well, to be fair, Eddie Griffin's familiar jiving pimp routine did make me giggle, but that was about it. As in The Nutty Professor, Murphy's Lon Chaney routine is impressive just as a technical feat. But the movie's comic rhythms are disrupted by the chore of cutting repeatedly between the star's shtick and the self-same star's reaction shot. And the plot (credited to Murphy and his brother Charles), it would have seemed flimsy back in the vaudeville days: the fate of an orphanage hangs in the balance as Rasputia and her thuggish brothers try to steal the deed from Norbit's true love, Kate (Thandie Newton). Ms Newton, it must be said, has never looked skinnier - or more uncomfortable.
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