In Norbit, Eddie Murphy is married to himself. That about sums up the premise of this angry-seeming comedy, yet another in which Murphy plays multiple roles in order to abuse and celebrate himself, repeatedly, loudly, and unstoppably. The idea is further elaborated in the promotional poster, in which a large female Murphy bears down on a scrawny male Murphy. He looks squished and distressed, she looks furious, as if daring you not to get the joke built into the very concept of Multiple Murphys.
In this version of the multiplicity, the primary, ostensibly sympathetic incarnation is Norbit, with big glasses and little fro. The movie spends a few minutes setting up his background: as a swaddled baby, he’s tossed from a car by his father, landing with thuds in front of the Golden Wong restaurant, which doubles as an orphanage. Here he’s picked up by Mr. Wong (also Murphy), who describes the swaddled child succinctly, as an “ugry brack baby,” thus introducing a couple of motifs: the nerdy, incessantly disparaged Norbit and “funny-talking,” elderly, crotchety Chinese guy.
Into the midst of such hilarity, the film offers a sentimental saga, having to do with Norbit’s emotional maturation, facing down tragedy after tragedy. As a five-year-old (when he’s played by (Khamani Griffin), Norbit’s best “buddy” is fellow orphan Kate (China Anderson). Predictably, she’s adopted, and they lose track of one another. Adrift at the orphanage and apparently desperate for a “family,” he agrees to terms laid down by the bully Rasputia (Lindsey Sims-Lewis): she beats up the mean boys who are picking on him, then insists that he become “hers,” expecting utter subservience and loyalty.
His allegiance is nearly as monumental as her outsized body, such that he marries her when he comes of age (and when both Rasputia and Norbit are played by Murphy). Though he grimaces during the ceremony (and a speech by Mr. Wong insinuates that she is a “gorilla”), Norbit succumbs to her soul-sucking kiss and so the film establishes the marriage is monstrous. As reduced in a few horrific montages and short scenes, their relationship has her overwhelming Norbit emotionally and especially in bed (she literally throws herself on him, breaking the bed repeatedly).
Her dominance is bolstered by her big brothers—Big Jack (Terry Crews), Earl (Clifton-Powell), and Blue (Mighty Rasta)—ironic and pathetic emblems of the “family” Norbit desires. The brothers run a corrupt and oppressive construction business, menacing Norbit in every shot, as he seems minuscule next to their gigantic arms and pecs. Thus the entire clan (Rasputia included) represents what Norbit is not and should not aspire to be: greedy, deceitful, selfish, and ignorant. It’s an obvious lesson that he takes the rest of the movie to figure out, announcing his realization by becoming a “man,” that is, no longer Rasputia’s “bitch.”
Mr. Wong (EDDIE MURPHY, left), who found Norbit (EDDIE MURPHY, right) on his doorstep as a baby, gives the young man some fatherly advice.
The steps toward consciousness are slow indeed. First, he has to see that Rasputia is not only a bully and a liar but also a ho: he catches her in bed with her aerobics instructor Buster (Marlon Wayans). Then he has to find another love object in Kate, who returns to town to purchase the orphanage and continue its “good” work, and now grown up to be the very thin, very not-Rasputia Thandie Newton. With his options thus egregiously embodied, Norbit proceeds with his enlightenment process. It hardly matters that Kate brings along a fiancé, Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr.), because he’s immediately revealed as a rapscallion scheming to steal her money. So she and Norbit, both dim bulbs extraordinaire, must save one another.
Though Kate is dependent pretty much on Norbit, his instructors include the purple-suited movie pimps, Pope Sweet Jesus (Eddie Griffin) and Lord Have Mercy (Katt Wiliams). They do the usual movie pimp stuff, driving a Cadillac and assessing women who happen by (they also indulge in a church spectacle, demonstrating that movie pimps can rouse movie congregations as readily as movie preachers). Given that Pope Sweet Jesus and Lord Have Mercy interact only occasionally with Norbit, they’re really more like your instructors than his, yet they’re energetic enough that they seem the film’s one bright spot, if only because they recognize themselves as what they are, supporting characters with precious little time to make their dent. (They do serve a brief plot point, that is, they scheme with the brothers and Deion to turn the orphanage into a “titty bar,” the mere pronunciation of which apparently worth a laugh.)
Taking up the most screen time and space—aside from the mostly forgettable Norbit—is the frightening Rasputia. The movie offers many, many jokes about her size and appetites: she eats noisily and, of course, voraciously; her breasts bump her steering wheel and so set of the horn (this joke is so very amusing that it comes up three or four times), and her sexual desire is limitless and creative (in one “scene” with Norbit, he’s dressed as Abraham Lincoln and she appears as slave, with chain, throwing herself on top of him, destroying the bed, and, and apparently offering some grim comeuppance to Mr. Emancipation Proclamation). At one point, for no fathomable plot reason, Rasputia appears in slow motion, washing her car, to the tune of Kelis’ “Milkshake.” Stealing from Date Movie: now that is pathetic.
As Norbit realizes he’s in love with Kate, he finally gets up enough nerve to leave his wife, despite her physical abuses. This passes for resolution, underlined when Rasputia suffers some awful physical abuses as well, primarily from Mr. Wong, who inexplicably practices whale-harpooning as a hobby. This allows him to yell out at Rasputia, with no small jubilation, “Whale! Ho!” This is something like the 146th “big woman” joke in the film. And it’s still not funny.