My wife and I caught Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor on motel cable while waiting for a flight this morning. I didn’t remember much about it except that Eddie Murphy plays a whole family of fat people who’re delusional about their weight and possess the power of at-will flatulence. Honestly I remembered more about Jack Black’s parody sequence in Tropic Thunder.
An hour later it registered that we’re still watching and laughing. It’s an interesting movie. Besides the impressive special effects and Murphy’s ability to perfect comedic timing in scenes where he’s his own scene-partner, The Nutty Professor is also occasionally funny.
Later that night, while scrolling through the HBOMax library, we stumbled upon the critically panned but financially successful Norbit. “Hah, we could watch that and make it kind of a mini-Murphy-marathon.” I joked with my wife. And before I knew it she had pressed play with the cold decisive strike of a cobra. “Oh, I’ve never seen this.” I said while preparing myself for what I imagined would be an hour and a half of another Klumps movie. “Neither have I.” She said, “Maybe it’s not as bad as people say.”
It could’ve been worse. Norbit is a dumb movie. It’s humor is on par with Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Jack and Jill, and Shallow Hal but without any of their meager qualities. Norbit is an orphan who’s trapped in an abusive marriage with Rasputia, the obnoxious obese terror also played by Murphy. Rasputia’s family’s schemes to scam Norbit’s childhood sweetheart out of her life’s savings so they can build a strip club where the orphanage used to be passes for the plot.
Saying I was disappointed in Norbit feels like saying I was disappointed with gas station cuisine. The difference is I could see Norbit was made with above average ingredients instead of butcher scraps. Look at the cast. Eddie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, Thandiwe Newton, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terry Crews, Katt Williams, Marlon Wayans, and an ever so brief performance by Kristen Schaal. That’s a fine ensemble cast with strong up-and-comers and industry veterans. On top of that Norbit was written by brothers Eddie and the late Charlie Murphy of Chappell’s Show fame. Many of Charlie Murphy’s bits have stuck with me since they echoed through the halls of my high school as everyone quoted his true Hollywood stories. Just yesterday I asked my dog “What did the five fingers say to the face?”
I wonder what went wrong? I look at a movie like Dolemite is my Name and see it’s foundation is similar to Norbit’s. A strong ensemble cast led by Eddie Murphy, a director with modest but solid credentials, and an exciting writing team. They’re fundamentally different films. One’s a smart comedic biopic and the other’s a low brow descent into racist, sexist, sizist ‘humor’. It’s a fascinating equation, because all of those deplorable elements were present in The Nutty Professor too… so what makes it funnier than Norbit?
You can’t have a great movie without a great script (unless it’s an improvisational film) but Norbit’s script doesn’t even measure up to The Nutty Professor! Professor Klump’s struggle with his weight and self confidence are relatable, and the audience’s investment in his journey keeps their heads above the movie’s fart-filled water. In Norbit the audience drowns.
That’s what makes Norbit so disappointing. Not the thin premise, the constant bombardment of fat and racist jokes, or even Rasputia’s forced “How you doing?” catchphrase (this appears midway through the movie and eventually punctuates every conversation). Norbit’s real tragedy is that it’s the final writing collaboration between Eddie and Charlie Murphy. Norbit’s a wasted spark of potential the likes of which we’ll never glimpse again, and it’s garbage.