Even so, I knew that Norbit was going to be an ordeal. I made a pact with Michael that I would review it if he reviewed Freddy Got Fingered. Now, I must admit to feeling guilty about this. I knew that he would suffer far more than I did, and his review made it clear that I was right. The key sentence in it is 'While I can conceive of there being other films that are as bad as Freddy Got Fingered, the notion of there being anything more awful is beyond my reasoning.' (The review is at http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/archives/2008/01/the_case_for_euthanising_tom_g.html) the man is right, that's all I can say.
Norbit is not as bad as Freddy Got Fingered. In much the same way, getting your legs broken with repeated blows from a baseball bat is not as bad as having your heart ripped out with a rusty sewing needle.
My friends, there are worse films out there and worse comedies. Not having seen many Eddie Murphy films, I can't even say that this is the most odious one. But that's all a game of comparisons. All I know is that the jokes in Norbit were so old, Indiana Jones dug them out with the Ark of the Covenant, and that they are telegraphed from so far away that the audience might as well be made up of clairvoyants. Add to this a couple of aggravating performances by Murphy himself and some dreadfully offensive moments, and you have one long, long exercise in tedium that is occasionally punctuated by brain seizures.
Norbit Rice (Eddie Murphy) is an orphan who was raised at an orphanage-cum-Chinese-restaurant, run by the idiosyncratic Mr Wong (Eddie Murphy - credit where credit's due, the make-up to completely disguise Murphy is very good indeed). As a child, he loves his playmate Kate, who is adopted and taken off to a new life. Norbit falls in with a fat girl called Rasputia, who grows up into an even more bloated and selfish woman (Eddie Murphy again, this time in a fat suit. Ha! Fat people are funny!). They marry, and Norbit thinks that his life is great. But one day he finds out Rasputia has been cheating on him and only hours afterwards he meets Kate for the first time in years (Kate is played by Thandie Newton; it would have been very disturbing if Murphy had gone for the role...). Kate wants to buy the orphanage and she is engaged to be married to a young man called Deion, a fact that depresses Norbit even further. Even after all these years, he still has feelings for her. However, the problem runs much deeper. Rasputia's brothers want to buy the orphanage to turn it into a stripper bar, and Deion, being the scumbag that he is, is quite willing to help.
You've probably noticed how cookie-cutter that synopsis is. It's along the lines of true love conquering all, the bad guys (Boo! Hiss!) turning something noble into something base and there's no doubt at all about who's going to win. Norbit is the perpetually downtrodden soul with a silly haircut and unflattering glasses (Kate, of course, is played by as attractive an actress as they could get - make of that what you will). Nevertheless, by the end of the film he makes a stand and in so doing gets together with the girl of his dreams. Norbit's plot is as bland as they come... but, I would argue, it's still one that can be used. You'd never do anything great with it, perhaps, and it's very predictable, but the basic plot is not the biggest problem with the film.
Which is not to say it isn't flawed. Not content with giving us a plot older than the first film camera, everything is signposted in the most obvious way. Norbit sees a TV advert for private investigators, which all but blares to the viewer 'PAY ATTENTION, THIS IS A PLOT POINT.' Kate teaches Norbit how to ride a bicycle; yes, it comes up at the climax. Speaking of Kate, she is forced to appear as an idiot just to get the plot to move along. She signs legal documents without reading them and is a gullible twit from beginning to end. It is deeply disheartening that we are supposed to be rooting for the hero to get together with a ntiwit. Still, if these were the film's only faults it would just be medicore. Happily for us fans of bad films it is much, much more.
First of all, as I have mentioned, the jokes are uniformly predictable, the kiss of death for comedy. You've either heard it all before (Ha! Fat people are funny!) or you can guess it well before it comes. I knew that I was going to be in for an ordeal at the beginning of the film when Norbit, in voiceover, blathers on about how great his parents must have been. He goes on at such length that we know what's coming. The sight of someone throwing a baby out of a moving car in front of the orphanage might have been funny, but the scriptwriters have pounded the set-up so firmly into our skulls that we watch only with boredom.
Then there are the fat jokes (Ha! Fat people are funny! I know this because the film insists they are over and over and over again). Rasputia's character trait is that she's fat and she's obnoxious. Watch her ever-expanding waistline as she tries to fit into her car on three or four different occasions. Endure a montage of Rasputia in skimpy underwear as she leaps on Norbit, causing the bed to collapse three times before they reinforce it with concrete. Listen to people refer to her weight in an amazed fashion time and time again. Suffer through the spectacle of Rasputia on a water slide, building up speed before she shoots off into a child's pool, causing so great a splash that no water is left in the pool afterwards. Would you believe that Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries plays during this scene? I don't like Wagner, and I tend to find that when I listen to him something horrible happens. This was no different; there was still an hour of film left.
Occasionally there's a joke that does not involve Rasputia's size. They are so bland it's almost as if they're not really there, which would be preferable. Five minutes of bland comedy isn't too painful to sit through, but ninety minutes' worth? It just grows and grows and grows until you sit there, slumped in your seat and losing the ability to focus. In the interests of honesty I have to confess I smiled twice, which only goes to show that honesty is not generosity.
Considering that Stephen Fry, Chris Morris and Peter Cook would not be able to sell this script, it is unsurprising that Eddie Murphy should fail to do so either (Though it occurs to me that a script written by the dead Peter Cook would be funnier). We should not point the finger of blame just because he didn't succeed in the challenge - no, we should be wielding the cricket bat of revenge because he makes it so much worse. Faced with this script, the only sensible thing for an actor to do would be to lie low and hope that nobody notices him. Murphy, alas, does not have this level of intelligence. He gurns his way through the role of Norbit and as far as Rasputia goes - Ha! Fat people are funny! Have I mentioned that yet? Anyway, Murphy plays Rasputia as hideously as possible. I suppose he's successful in portraying Rasputia as an absolutely dreadful presence, but that's not the same as making her funny. The combination of bad script writing and bad acting drags everything into a black hole.
And what about Mr Wong? Oh yes, have I got something to say about him. Is a black man playing an Asian racist or not? Being a person who believes that the best actor should always get the part, part of me would say no - so long as there were really no talented Asians about. Fortunately, in the case of Mr Wong, I don't have to consider the subtleties of the position. I could talk at great length about all the Asian stereotypes he fulfills, but it's much easier to concentrate on one awful scene that propels Mr Wong from feeble comic relief to being inexcusable. In fact, let me transcribe his little speech to Norbit.
'You very special to me. I love you like my own child, like boy child, not girl child. Wong once have girl child back in Shanghai. When she two years old, I trade her for yak. That sort of thing happen in China from time to time. Yak very hard to come by.'
I'm afraid you've read that correctly. I shall remain as polite as possible and just ask whether anyone in the film has ever heard of China's one child policy, of the famous documentary The Dying Rooms (http://www.channel4.com/fourdocs/archive/the_dying_room.html) and of the fact that because of the one child policy, boys are valued more than girls. Well, whether Murphy and the other writers knew or not, it was appalling.
Murphy, incidentally, has nobody to blame but himself. He came up with the story, he co-wrote the script and he was one of the producers. You should rightly be getting suspicious at this news; Norbit bears all the hallmarks of that most terrible of creations, the vanity project. This was Murphy's toy, and nobody was prepared to say no. Really, the most amazing thing about this film is that it wasn't such an implosion as Battlefield Earth, and I'm afraid that's the most positive thing I can say about it.
If you watch Norbit superficially, you will be left with the impression that it is an unimpressive and forgettable film. But I'm not someone who watches films superficially. As I continued watching, focussing on flaw after flaw after flaw, the film just became monstrous. It inflated before eyes from being mediocre claptrap into being utter dross.
So, no, it's not as bad as Freddy Got Fingered, but that would be technically impossible. It's still pretty fucking tragic.
Incidentally, because I still feel guilty and because I'm an idiot, I shall now proceed to endure greater pain. I have a very good suspicion that the film Dirty Love, a Hollywood comedy that includes such jokes as a woman bleeding heavily in a supermarket during her period, might be able to trump FGF. Did you know that in its first week in cinemas it grossed only $23,000? I shall now hunt down this film and watch it - may God have mercy on my soul.