Author’s Note: The following review was inspired by Eddie Murphy’s recent appearance on James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio.”
In the many years that I have been toiling in this noblest of professions, I have never once been graced with the immense joy I experienced upon witnessing the Eddie Murphy comedy Norbit. Indeed, if I may humbly suggest as much, “comedy” is a misnomer here. It is a film about love, liberation, and the miraculous things that happen when wine-cooler bubbly passes through one’s intestines and escapes one’s sphincter with a glorious, reverberating sound. Humorous, it is. But the jokes are present only to make the pain of heartbreak less bitter upon our palates and less disruptive to our digestive systems.
Eddie Murphy’s career is unique for its remarkable variety. He is a comedian known for pushing boundaries, though he is the rarest of exceptions: A gifted actor who proves that talent and box-office success are not mutually exclusive. I offer you these fine examples: Daddy Day Care, The Nutty Professor (and its sequel), Doctor Dolittle (and its sequel), and even Holy Man, in which he portrays a television evangelist who takes America by storm. Well, I say to you: Since he broke through on “Saturday Night Live” almost 25 years ago, he has taken my heart by storm.
Here, his character is born Norbit Albert Rice. He is a soft-spoken, slightly retarded — or, I should say, mentally challenged — African-American with a meek disposition. But as the Gospel of Matthew long ago suggested, it is the “meek [who] shall inherit the Earth.” And that is the challenge for this young man. His character is poor, raised in the Wonton Orphanage by a kindhearted, racist Asian man (also played so adeptly by Mr. Murphy) after being thrown from a moving automobile by his unseen biological parents. He was then left alone and destitute outside of this small-town orphanage. But as Sting once wrote, “I’d rather be poor than a fat man stuck in the eye of a needle.” Truer words have never been spoken.
There are many adjectives I could use to describe Norbit: splendiferous, scrumpgasmic, magnerific. But there is only one word that truly captures the essence of this film, and it is luminous. I could offer a wealth of other descriptors, but allow me to briefly lay out the plot, so that you may draw your own conclusions, because it is the narrative — which unspools slowly and deliberately, like a flower in the springtime — that truly makes Norbit a masterpiece of the 21st century.
We learn early on that the title character has a soul mate in his fellow orphanage-inmate Kate, portrayed by China Anderson in the character’s preadolescent years. As children, Norbit and Kate are inseparable. And like other big-screen couples — Woody and Diane, Meg and Tom, Freddie and Rachael — Kate and Norbit do everything as one, even going as far as “pooping” together before later reading their own impromptu vows under a tree.
Sadly, however, Kate is adopted, leaving Norbit alone in the orphanage. Soon, however, he meets Rasputia, an overweight girl with a vicious scowl, who saves Norbit from teenage ruffians, who would deign to destroy Norbit’s sandcastle. Rasputia brings Norbit home with her and offers her own family as his, honoring him at suppertime with the best part of the turkey: its ass.
As we move to the present day, Norbit and Rasputia are wed. It is quickly revealed, however, that the marriage of Norbit and Rasputia is not blessed with either matrimonial or carnal bliss, despite Rasuputia’s empty assertions to the contrary. Rasputia, in the current day, is a 350-pound behemoth of a woman with “ass dimples that look like potholes” who displays her rolls of cellulite like a rap star might flash his gold teeth — as a sign of status. She is a menacing cut of a woman, all the more so for the subtle implications her character makes about obesity in modern-day America. There is no mistake, either, that her name is inspired by the Russian mystic who helped to take down the Romanov dynasty and, in a way, Norbit is her Anastasia.
We learn early on that Rasputia is having an adulterous affair with her power-tapping dance instructor (Marlon Wayans) (“I will power-tap you”), a revelation that is as gutting as anything I’ve seen since Diane Lane’s illicit liaison in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful. I was transfixed by the actress playing this morbidly obese enchantress, intrigued with the beauty and subtlety of her obscene, guttural disposition, and it was as much a surprise to me as it will be to you to learn — as I did when the credits began cruelly to roll — that she, too, is played by none other than Eddie Murphy himself. Is there no end to this man’s talent?
Norbit, however, is powerless to leave Rasputia. He is trapped in a dead-end marriage with a woman so despicable that she would run her sporty sedan over his dog because he readjusted the positioning of her car seat, which made it impossible for her to move around in the car without honking the horn with her gargantuan bosom. Norbit’s marital subjugation is made all the more untenable once Kate (Thandie Newton) re-enters the picture, returning to town to take over the orphanage with her fiancé Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in tow. Kate and Norbit reconnect after 30, and their chemistry is intoxicating. (Literally. I briefly passed out and woke up blurry-eyed, with a pounding hangover, which I could only attribute to Brobdingnagian directorial talents of Brian Robbins [Good Burger, The Shaggy Dog].) However, the 350-pound elephant in the room remains Rasputia, who is hellbent on erecting obstacles to the blossoming love between Kate and Norbit, or Korbit, as they will long be known in tabloid circles.
Rasputia repeatedly uses an ebonic Tribbianism, “How you doing?” at first for comedic effect, but as the narrative unfolds and the story of Norbit’s life takes us to deeper, darker and more mysterious places in our own psyches, that “How you doing?” takes on another meaning all together, something akin to Jack Nicholson’s ominous “Here’s Johnny!” in The Shining. I wouldn’t dare attend Norbit alone, not without someone to latch onto during the terrifying parts, of which there are many, notable among them Rasputia’s visit to a water park (“It’s like an amusement park, only I ain’t got to leave to go to the bathroom”) and a scene that features her wearing a two-piece and washing her car to Kelis’ “Milkshake,” a moment loosely inspired by a similar scene in the equally sublime Date Movie. In both instances, the effect was so haunting that I was forced to hide my eyes from the screen for a few seconds.
Through it all, this powerful, completely unpredictable story of forbidden love and the lengths to which people will go to make a relationship work is held together by the Oscar-nominated talents of Eddie Murphy, who creates a character that will go down in the annals of cinematic history as one of the more complex creations: He is part Karl Childers from Sling Blade, part Weird Harold, from the television cartoon “The Adventures of Fat Albert,” and part Screech, from one of the greatest syndicated television programs of the last generation, “Saved by the Bell.” It is a delightful combination, like a concoction of pickles, grape jelly, and marshmallow cream spread between two slices of white bread. And with the help of Eddie Griffin, who reprises (and perfects) his pimp character from every movie he’s ever made, the farcical wedding-scene climax in Norbit is a divine comedy of errors that will leave you on the floor gasping for air (as I was). Indeed, in his fragile old age, it is precisely the kind of inspired farce that I’d encourage Neil Simon to avoid, lest the envy drive him to an early grave.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Norbit / Dustin Rowles
Film | February 9, 2007 | Comments ()