A few weeks ago on Saturday Night Live, a digital short aired -- I'd give a link, but I'm sure Jeff Zucker's trying to monetize it somewhere as we speak-- called Nurse Nancy. Starring that man of two faces, Andy Samberg, Nurse Nancy was a mock trailer for a film featuring Samberg in a variety of roles -- including a cross-gender fat suit -- as Young MC's "Bust a Move" plays. Godard said the way to criticize a film was to make another film; nowadays, it seems that the best way to criticize a film is to make a digital short. And if you watch that short -- legally, or Lorne has to come by your house -- you'll pretty much see the worst of Norbit.
You wouldn't see the best of it, either, but Samberg and associates pretty much nail the rotten core with one shot. Starring Eddie Murphy, Norbit is a truly bizarre comedy -- for every moment of loud, unfunny idiocy, there's a split-second of surreal pleasure. And, at heart, Norbit is dumb as a sack of sacks (the traditional hammers would give the sack too much weight.) But it also has a zip to it, a lunacy, a slapstick-cartoon zest. Let me put it this way: having seen Big Momma's House and Diary of a Mad Black Woman in the line of duty, I'd much rather watch Norbit if I had to pick.
Norbit was abandoned as a child, and left out front of the nearest Chinese restaurant and orphanage, run by Mr. Wong (Murphy). His best friend was Kate (who grows to be played by Thandie Newton), but she left when she was adopted. Norbit -- bespectacled, gawky and possessed of an Afro that looks like nothing less than the wind screens on old-school NFL sideline microphones -- is then befriended by Rasputina (Sir Laurence Olivi ... no, Murphy again). As a child, Rasputina is possessed of a large personality; as a fully-grown woman she's a rollicking fun-time sassy lady whose shrewish, loudmouth ways make her marriage to Norbit a living hell! Oh, and she's morbidly obese.
Or, rather, jovially obese, because, hey, this is a comedy. But it's a pretty schizoid one; whenever Norbit's on-screen, the film plays like a weird mix of Kung Fu Hustle, Raising Arizona and Napoleon Dynamite. (At one point, Norbit, head in hands, inquires as to the source of his dog Floyd's bark: "What is it, boy? Is it an earthquake, or some other natural disaster?") When Rasputina's on screen, she takes up all the air in the movie -- to an extent, she's supposed to -- and Norbit just feels like ... Big Mama's House or Diary of a Mad Black Woman. (And now that I've mentioned each of those films twice, that noise you hear isn't your computer -- it's Flip Wilson turning in his grave.)
Norbit is directed by Brian Robbins, the child-actor-turned-director-and-producer. Robbins is one of those powerful people in Hollywood you hear nothing about -- yes, he may have been in Head of the Class, but he's also got a piece of Smallville. And as a director, he's got a TV touch -- light, bright, swift. And while there are fart jokes -- many of them -- there are also little moments as Norbit decides to leave Rasputina and pursue Kate. (Norbit kind of resembles Murphy's Buckwheat -- a little lost, a little odd, but good of heart.) And Rasputina tends to leave holes in furniture, and walls and floors; she also can knock a pretty big hole in a movie, too.
There's a flawless and meaningless level of technical achievement in Norbit; the question in movies these days isn't 'Can my lead play opposite himself in heavy fat-suit makeup in a comedy-fistfight?' All answering that question takes is money. The better question is "Should my lead play opposite himself in heavy fat-suit makeup in a comedy fistfight?" Answering that question requires judgment, which is in far shorter supply in modern Hollywood. Makeup and special effects mean that we get to see Rasputina sluice down a waterslide in a bikini and accumulate so much inertia she flies through a wooden wall and comes down in a steep parabola into a children's pool, draining it upon landing instead of breaking every bone in her body at the wall and screaming in agony for hours.
And yet, there is something funny about someone knocking a hole in a wall; if all of Norbit had a revved-up speed, playing as slapstick, it would have been pretty funny. One of the best early jokes in Norbit comes at Mr. Wong shoos coyotes away from the swaddled abandoned babe; a few more gags like that would have helped a lot. Oh, and if the word 'bitch' didn't come up so much. There are extensive cameos in Norbit -- Eddie Griffin plays a pimp-turned-rib-restaurateur with a manic gleam in his eye, and that is funny. I didn't recognize which Wayans sibling was playing Rasputina's dance teacher and lover; fortunately, I consulted my Audubon Guide to the Wayanses of North America and was able to cross-reference and identify Marlon in the role. Norbit's relationship with his dog is funny; when the dog starts speaking -- and calling people 'bitch' -- it is not. The script is credited to David Ronn and Jay Sherick, as well as Eddie and Charlie Murphy. And Norbit feels like it's been written by two separate writing teams -- it's just kind unevenly there, meandering from joke to joke.
Murphy seems to be reaching for something with Norbit -- maybe part of it is looking back to Coming to America, where Murphy played a sweet, decent, charismatic and kind man, thereby winning audience's hearts almost entirely and receiving some of the best reviews of his career. He also donned extensive makeup and played multiple roles, so maybe Murphy took the wrong lesson away from his past. It's easy to like Norbit the character; it's hard to like Norbit the movie.