Inside Eddie Murphy hides an overweight soul that’s longing to swell to its full potential. Which is hilarious because on the surface, the physically fit funnyman hasn’t gained a pound (or aged a day) since we first saw him on screen nearly 25 years ago in 48 Hours.
When Murphy feels compelled to toss his proverbial weight around, he doesn’t embellish his gluttony with radical feeding frenzies. Instead, he spends hours in a reclined chair and lets Academy Award-winning makeup artist Rick Baker do all the heavy lifting. Murphy and Baker’s frequent collaborations over the years have yielded a parade of eclectic (and unusually obese) characters, from Nutty Professor Sherman Klump — and his rotund family members — to the acerbic barbershop patrons of Coming to America. When these two join forces, the industry generally acknowledges their accomplishments. Three of Baker’s 10 Oscar nominations are for Murphy-led comedies, which includes a win for Nutty, hands-down their most celebrated effort.
Essentially, Norbit mirrors Nutty as it once again showcases Murphy and Baker’s incomparable skills at turning Murphy into a fat guy (or gal). A sensitive, sympathetic wallflower (played by Murphy) must find the strength to stand up to a grotesque counterpart (also played by Murphy) so that he can fulfill a destiny and be with the picture-perfect princess of his dreams – here, Thandie Newton assumes the always-underwritten love interest role that belonged to Jada Pinkett Smith and Janet Jackson in Professor parts one and two.
Orphaned as a baby, the awkward Norbit (Murphy) is destined for failure. He falls in love with young Kate as they struggle to survive the hard-knocked life at a roadside adoption establishment run by racist Mr. Wong (Murphy). But when Kate is adopted by loving parents, Norbit is claimed by pushy Rasputia, and the two become a match made in Hades.
Right around the time Norbit burns through all the skinny-guy-with-a-huge-girl sight gags it can think of, the story (credited to brothers Eddie and Charlie Murphy) brings grown-up Kate (Newton) back into the fold. Now a successful businesswoman, she wants to purchase and run the orphanage. Norbit sees this as an escape clause to his pathetic marriage, until he learns Kate is accompanied by a slimy fiancée (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
The Nutty movies did more than fatten Murphy’s bank account. They also taught the gifted comedian how to handle excess prosthetics. He’s beyond comfortable with his artificial girth, which allows Norbit to attempt (and master) a number of amusing physical stunts. As Rasputia, Murphy bounds through an aerobics class, wrestles to squeeze behind a steering wheel, catapults kids out of an inflatable castle and — in the film’s funniest scene — tackles a water slide at the town’s amusement park. Rasputia is another impressive creation of Baker’s, and Murphy once again injects her with sarcasm, bitterness, and comedic fury. It’s a testament to Murphy’s acting chops that the same performer can nail Norbit’s meek demeanor and massive hope whenever he’s around Kate. Newton, for her part, maintains an artificial sweetness that doesn’t distract from Murphy’s three-ring circus.
There’s a formula to these Murphy-in-makeup comedies, which Norbit closely follows. It overstays its welcome a bit, and relies too heavily on toilet humor (despite the PG-13 rating, this one is for mature teens). I’m confident Murphy will one day try to top the creations he unleashed in Norbit, though next time he could improve the comedy with a few minor tweaks. For instance, what if Norbit’s wife wasn’t such an ogre? It would make it harder for us to wholeheartedly root for a Norbit-Kate relationship. Along those lines, what if Kate’s fiancée wasn’t a lying, cheating, backstabbing weasel?
Sometimes these comedies could benefit from a little gray area. Norbit isn’t that deep. Instead, it’s the kind of crass comedy where a slimy dance instructor (played by Marlon Wayans) talks about the Bible and his desire to “turn the other cheek,” then walks away so we can see his bare ass.