Eddie Murphy's latest laffer is hysterical, all right, but in all the wrong ways. A kitchen-sink comedy (as in everything but), Norbit is a broad, low-comedy spectacle with grotesque cartoon caricatures and a melocomedic plot too exaggerated for a vaudeville theatre. You may want to take a bath after sitting through this uneasy African-American wish-fulfillment fantasy of escaping from a pecking hen to a hot waif, and yet there's something about Norbit: something called Eddie Murphy.
As is his wont, Murphy plays three characters: the titular nerd with a taut, unconvincing smile (only a few degrees from his nerd in Bowfinger); Norbit's enormous wife Rasputia (think Big Momma, but younger and crueller); and the rude, profane, racist Chinese proprietor of the restaurant-orphanage from which Norbit hails ("He rike my son!"). The plot is a collision of a fairy tale, warped romantic comedy, and Capra-corn on crack. On a studio backlot's generic small-town America set, Murphy takes old-fashioned ethnic swipes and shoots out "yo wife so fat jokes" with the steady rhythm of a tennis ball machine (Murphy and brother Charlie co-wrote the story and share screenplay credit with Jay Scherick & David Ronn).
To counterbalance the inherent vanity of playing three key roles, Murphy shows some generosity in casting his support—that is, if handing out unfunny roles counts as generosity. A typically unfunny Marlon Wayans shows up as Rasputia's randy fitness instructor, Terry Crews brings his muscle-bound intimidation to Norbit's brother-in-law, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. rolls in as the cad who's engaged to Norbit's true love (Thandie Newton, too good to play only sweet blankness). The survivor here is Eddie Griffin, who as—an ex-pimp—proves hilarious by sheer force of will.
In that way, Griffin brings us back to Murphy, who can elevate bad material with his precision-timing and innate sense of comedy. Though the sight gags are mostly predictable, occasionally Murphy will nail a scene and in a matter of seconds give Norbit more entertainment value than an entire Martin Lawrence picture. Murphy and makeup artist Rick Baker certainly succeeded in making the finger-wagging fatty with an ever-changing 'do off-putting, but the scenes in which Rasputia threatens Norbit in their compact car have moments of comic gold.
Occasionally the film all-but-stumbles onto a funny conceit, like a block-party brawl over a disputed wine cooler. The farcical finale involving—you guessed it—a race to the altar is a pinata bursting open with candied cliches; against all odds, director Brian Robbins manages to build up a nice head of steam in the late going. But such moments are exceptions to the rule of what amounts to a tacky, disposable, and arguably misogynist comedy. By the twelfth time Murphy blares Rasputia's catch-phrase "How you doin'?", you may be tempted to answer, "I've been better...and so have you."