Eddie's shtick isn't slick

`Norbit' script, penchant for playing multiple roles seem stale

Review C-

February 09, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

As he shows in Dreamgirls, Eddie Murphy may have a sensational future as an actor. But when playing multiple characters in farcical vehicles like Norbit, Murphy has begun to wear out his welcome. His only recent comedy hits have taken him from the crazy Eddie of the Nutty Professor films to the fresh-as-a-daisy Eddie of the Dr. Dolittle films. Now we get a lazy Eddie in Norbit, a lackluster attempt to make a gross-out romantic comedy.

When I say lazy Eddie, I mean imaginatively lazy. Murphy plays three roles: the lovably shy orphan Norbit, his enormous wife Rasputia and Mr. Wong, the owner of the Golden Won Ton restaurant and orphanage. It doubtless took huge amounts of craft to create this trio's separate but equal shticks. Norbit freezes into a death-head's grin whenever he contemplates an eternity with Rasputia. Her eyes shoot out at her power-tap instructor Buster (Marlon Wayans) like those of a cartoon wolf ogling a dame. Mr. Wong's long-toothed, crooked smile seems to be the only thing that keeps him from spewing out racial, ethnic and sexual put-downs with the gusto and rapidity of a Chinese Don Rickles.

But the script Murphy co-wrote with his brother Charles, Jay Scherick and David Ronn never builds shtick on shtick into an entire comic architecture. Under Brian Robbins' direction, it has zero surprises. Norbit's childhood sweetheart, Kate (Thandie Newton), swings back into town, hoping to buy the Golden Won Ton so that Mr. Wong can fulfill his dream of hunting and harpooning whales. Rasputia is part of a family of local contractors and thugs who hope to snap up the Golden Won Ton themselves and turn it into a strip joint. From the moment the lithe and decent Kate comes onto the scene, you know her fiance, Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr.), supposedly a real-estate expert, will turn out to be a sleaze willing to partner up with Rasputia's rapacious clan. You also know Norbit and Kate will reconnect in their own nice-boy-and-girl way.

All the characters except Norbit operate at the end of the film the same way they did at the beginning, and even Norbit mostly remains a lost Little Rascal, putting on a smile every day in hopes of finding something to smile about. Murphy probably means Norbit to be Chaplinesque, but Murphy has forgotten one thing about Chaplin: The Tramp balanced pathos with big laughs. As Norbit, Murphy has one crowd-pleasing scene when he unconsciously works his anger at Rasputia into a puppet show he's staging for Mr. Wong's latest crop of orphans. Most of the time, Murphy disappears behind Norbit's glasses and recessive expressions; you might wish he were chewing the scenery instead of the inside of his mouth.

As Rasputia, Murphy does get laughs, but cheaply, by pushing the woman's prosthetic bulk into a bikini whose bottom is invisible beneath her billowing fat, then turning a trip down a water-park chute into the death dive of a killer whale. There's a running gag about Rasputia's insistence that her car is shrinking; the problem is she comes with her own front, rear and side airbags.

Still, there was something hollow about the preview audience's laughter even at these surefire grotesqueries. The movie wins a spontaneous, full and genuine response only when Eddie Griffin, as a sometime pimp called Pope Sweet Jesus, commandeers the front of a church during a wedding he hopes Norbit will interrupt. Pope Sweet Jesus delivers testimony about getting the most out of condoms and out of love as a rocking revival number. And Griffin embellishes it with some swiveling dance moves that are as loony as they are swift and graceful. The audience seems grateful to see a smart stand-up comic like Griffin look like a dude and still tear it up. It's a mark of Murphy's generosity that he lets Griffin steal a climactic scene.

Even so, it's not enough to make up for Griffin's weak material early in the film. Like Newton, Gooding and Murphy himself, Griffin seems ready to join an exclusive club: The People Who Have More Talent Than They Know How to Use. In the case of Norbit, their ignorance is not bliss.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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