Monday, 19 February 2007

Norbit (2007)

Makes you wonder how Dreamgirls would’ve turned out if Eddie Murphy played all 4 Supremes

There’s a mystery surrounding Eddie Murphy. He’s a great comedian, but aside from Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Nutty Professor, and Dr Doolittle, almost all of his other comedies were difficult to watch. In his long career, he’s made more bombs than ribtickling movies. And in the same year, he’s starring in Dreamgirls and Norbit.

Dreamgirls is sort of a secret history of the Supremes, with Eddie Murphy wowing audiences with his singing and acting talent. Norbit is a comedy about a meek African-American man who is constantly bullied by his oversized and vulgar wife, and her extortionist brothers (they’re in the property business). Part of the humour in Dreamgirls comes from Eddie Murphy’s the over-the-top performance as a stereotypical sex on legs male singer, and part of the humour in Norbit comes from Eddie Murphy’s over-the-top performance as Norbit, his gigantic wife Rasputia, and Mr Wang, who ran the orphanage where Norbit grew up. Yet Norbit is a rehash of old Eddie Murphy movies. Like the ones where he dons a fat suit and plays every character in the room. If that’s not too unoriginal, it has some of the most recycled fat jokes in movie history, and is the Nth movie after Scary Movie to parody the Paris Hilton Carls Jr ad.

Don’t get me wrong about Norbit, though: skits and stand-up routines with male comedians dressed as stereotypical big fat black women with stereotypical big bad attitudes are a staple on the comedy circuit. The problem is a really funny theme for jokes and sharp criticism on typical behaviour by ethnic minorities ("Blacks are fat and loud and have no manners!", for example) works in stand-up routines only because the skits are short, and people are used to very politically-incorrect jokes told by ethnic minority comedians. It’s like Sacha Baron Cohen making fun of Jews in his sketch shows, or Bill Cosby criticising the poor education of black people in front of black audiences.

One thing about these jokes is they would never really work in a conventional feature film (Borat worked, but only because it was less of a film than a long series of filmed sketches), because feature films require a coherent, sustained storytelling that is often at odds with the punchline-driven, superficial haha style of jokes seen and heard on stand-up routines. This very minor, but very fatal weakness shows itself in Norbit, which is genuinely funny and funniest in its first half hour, but the fat jokes get a little tired, a little worn, and a little less funny after that. The entire "Eddie Murphy’s playing everyone in the room!" thing is good, but getting old, and ever since the scene in Being John Malkovich, nothing Eddie Murphy does now can top that.

The funniest thing about Norbit isn’t really Eddie Murphy, but his co-stars Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams, who play the most hilarious characters in this movie. Their appearances are guaranteed to bring down the house in the few scenes they’re in, and the real reason to watch this comedy.

First published at incinemas on 18 February 2007

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