Review: Norbit

This is the part of the review where I bemoan Eddie Murphy for picking "Norbit" (IMDb listing) to follow-up his Oscar-nominated, highly lauded work in "Dreamgirls." To go from the lightning of James Early to the fat suit wonderland of "Norbit" is admittedly a sketchy leap of faith, but you know, Eddie Murphy is awfully good at this material. He just needs material that's awfully good at him.

Growing up an outsider at Mr. Wong's Chinese Food and Orphanage shop, Norbit (Eddie Murphy) faced a lifetime of loneliness. When Rasputia (Murphy again) enters his world, Norbit clings to the giant woman and becomes part of her family of hoodlums (including Terry Crews and Clifton Powell). Now married to the hideous creature, Norbit endures a daily battery of demands and threats. When Kate (Thandie Newton, terrifyingly thin here), Norbit's old crush, enters his life again, the nerdy, lovestruck guy doesn't know what to do with himself. This leaves Rasputia to take matters into her own hands and wreck Norbit's happiness yet again.

Unlike other recent trainwrecks in Eddie Murphy's career ("Daddy Day Care," "I Spy), "Norbit" belongs almost completely to him. Outside of playing three characters, Murphy produces and co-writes (with brother Charlie) this love song to the easily intimidated. Having long ago lost is youthful sense of adventure, "Norbit" feels like an experiment on Murphy's part to see where his mind can take him these days.

"Norbit," during its more unbridled moments, manages to catch that elusive Murphy rage. The comedian loves to get lost in these characters, and there's an abundance of entertainment to be found just hearing Murphy's brain whirring underneath all the makeup.

As Norbit, Murphy transforms himself into the ultimate pushover. Embodying the freewheeling enormity of Rasputia, Murphy releases himself, taking great pride in ribbing some African-American cultural stereotypes (that blessedly don't belong to a big momma) and embracing a virtual all-you-can-eat buffet of fat jokes. Murphy also plays Mr. Wong, and that's the one character the actor enjoys the most. Under Rick Baker's brilliant makeup, Murphy looks nothing like himself. If it wasn't for his voice, Murphy could easily have passed himself off as 90-year-old Asian whaling connoisseur who embraces his racism.

Employing a sizable chunk of African-American talent (it seems Terrence Howard, Sidney Poitier, and Dave Chappelle are the only ones missing here) and working from a script that includes a pair of rib-slingin' pimps (Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams), it might appear that hilarity is a foregone conclusion. Not so fast. Murphy often holds himself back with the writing in "Norbit" and he hires the least funny and urban (if you want to get technical) director around, Brian Robbins ("The Shaggy Dog," "Hardball").

Any time "Norbit" looks set for launch, Robbins pulls the film back harshly, replacing some potentially nightmarishly hilarious moments with pedestrian ones more suited for a CW pilot. Murphy tends to encourage this behavior with his script, which reaches for an Adam Sandler mix of the absurd and the heartwarming to best play to all audiences. Much like the aggravating Sandler misfire "Click," "Norbit" pours on the sentimentally, slowly suffocating any prayer for the film to have that crucial freedom to go anywhere it pleases.

Murphy and Robbins don't just want a berserk comedy, they want audiences to have a real sympathy for Norbit and his trials of the heart. As with most attempts to sync up bawdy material with likeable characters, the film can't massage either side to a satisfying end. "Norbit" ends up a patchy oddity, but remains the closest Eddie Murphy has come to recapturing his mislaid sense of danger.

Filmfodder Grade: C+