Eddie Murphy, shape-shifter supreme, gracefully inhabits the body and soul of a 300-pound scientist, of a reptilian lounge lizard, and even, in
, of a wiry, wily Chinese American proprietor of a Cantonese restaurant/orphanage.
The question is not whether Murphy can do anything. He can. The question is why he would want to make a movie as squirmingly unfunny as Norbit.
In this toxic comedy Murphy plays the title role, a nerdy orphan so timid that he makes Urkel look like the Terminator. He also appears in yellowface as Wong the restaurateur and in a grotesque fat suit as Rasputia, the whale of a woman who marries Norbit and manhandles him when Kate (Thandie Newton), his childhood sweetheart, returns on the scene.
In the history of movie heavies (pun unintentional), it is hard to think of another character like Rasputia who is the butt of jokes just because she is big of butt.
What flatulence was to Murphy's Nutty Professor, fat is here. Perpetuating the double standard that supersized guys like John Goodman and Cedric the Entertainer are funny and plus-sized women are scary, the film's primary source of humor is its appalling assumption that fat women are repulsive.
Hello, Eddie Murphy? This is the Motion Picture Academy calling. You know that Oscar nomination we gave you for Dreamgirls? We take it back.
Based on a story written by Murphy and his big brother Charles, this would-be comedy is broader, if possible, than Rasputia's backside.
Yes, Norbit gives the man of a thousand faces the opportunity to create diverse characters. But it denies the audience the basic pleasure of the men-in-dresses film.
Typically the humor of drag comedy (think Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Big Momma's House) derives from the man's unexpected empathy with the woman he is pretending to be. Murphy's Rasputia is not a man in a dress but an actor playing a morbidly obese woman - a chocolate-pudding Matterhorn - without a mote of sympathy. Stereotyping another human this way in order to score cheap laughs is a form of blackface.
It is the misogyny and mean-spiritedness of Murphy's portrayal of Rasputia that you remember, not the comedian's consummate skill in creating her. Funnier, because they are sympathetic, are the characters of Norbit, the bespectacled and easily bullied orphan with the topiary Afro and geeky underbite, and Mr. Wong, Norbit's adoptive father.