2 stars (out of four)
His "Norbit" is a comedy for masochists--an often awful parade of flatulent gags about big butts, sadistic relationships and sexual idiocy, which tries at the same time to be sentimental and romantic. Sheer talent saves it from the dumpster.
Murphy plays three wildly different roles--the super-nice, nerdy title character, Norbit Albert Rice; Norbit's huge and foul-tempered wife, Rasputia; and the elderly and cynical orphanage owner Mr. Wong (Murphy's funniest performance here)--and he manages to keep them all distinct and outrageous.
Norbit is a gentle foundling who was dumped in front of Wong's Golden Wonton Restaurant and Orphanage in Boiling Springs, Tenn., and raised by Wong--who kicks off the movie's mean-spirited streak by describing him as the ugliest baby ever seen. After a brief idyll with pretty little 5-year-old fellow orphan Kate (China Anderson), Norbit loses her to adoption. At 9, he falls into the hands and cellulite rolls of Rasputia, a behemoth even at 10, who announces that timid little Norbit will be her boyfriend and scares away the playground bullies who bedevil him.
Eventually, Rasputia marries him, pulling Norbit into the crooked world of her three hulking, sadistic brothers, muscular Big Jack (Terry Crews), hardbody Earl (Clifton Powell) and heavyweight Blue (Lester "Rasta" Speight), whose Latimore Construction Company is a front for extortion and corruption of all kinds. Their fondest dream is to get control of the Wonton and turn it into a strip club.
The rest of the movie you can pretty well guess. Kate, all grown up into Thandie Newton, comes back to town with a two-faced fiance, Deion Hughes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and fond plans of taking over the orphanage from the retiring Mr. Wong. Norbit falls in love all over again--which puts him on the bad side of the Latimores and hot-tempered Rasputia. Also hanging around are ex-pimps Pope Sweet Jesus (Eddie Griffin) and Lord Have Mercy (Katt Williams), who now run Rasputia's favorite snack palace, the Rib Shak, and whom Norbit unwisely uses as his fashion consultants.
Predictable as it is, "Norbit" wouldn't be as annoying if it weren't done with such pointless panache--especially by Murphy, Gooding and makeup expert Rick Baker, who spent months creating the gargantuan, repulsive Rasputia. And Murphy's timing couldn't be worse here. Just on the eve of his biggest critical triumph--a good shot at the supporting-actor Oscar for his role as James "Thunder" Early in "Dreamgirls"--along comes "Norbit" to remind us of all the big bad movies he's been making for years, all those "Doctor Dolittles," "Daddy Day Cares," "Holy Mans " and "I Spys."
The movie, at its worst, just flabbergasts you. One running gag almost outdoes "Borat's" famous bad-taste hotel scene by having actor Murphy, playing two roles, perform immoral acts upon himself. We see Rasputia repeatedly leaping onto Norbit, crushing him and their bed--and we watch Wong harpoon Rasputia's bottom, and the ex-pimps taking over a wedding. The movie seems a weird nightmare of rampaging femininity and gross gags.
Murphy's comic skills are immense, and "Dreamgirls" shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself--here misdirected by Brian Robbins of "Good Burger," "Varsity Blues" and that lousy "Shaggy Dog" remake?
"Norbit" makes you long for the days of "Beverly Hills Cop," when Murphy was lighter on his feet, and his movies were too.
Directed by Brian Robbins; written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn; story by Charles Murphy, Eddie Murphy; photographed by Clark Mathis; edited by Ned Bastille; production designed by Clay A. Griffith; music by David Newman; produced by John Davis, Eddie Murphy, Michael Tollin. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language).
Norbit/Rasputia/Mr. Wong - Eddie Murphy
Kate - Thandie Newton
Deion Hughes - Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Pope Sweet Jesus - Eddie Griffin
Buster - Marlon Wayans
Earl - Clifton Powell
Blue - Lester "Rasta" Speight