Social commentary disguised in a fat suit

Norbit

on February 09, 2007 by Tim Cogshell
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The fat suit technology in Norbit (courtesy of makeup effects guru Rick Baker) alone should be worthy of Academy Award consideration, and, if one were truly honest, so should the performances — of which there are three — of Eddie Murphy in this raucously silly, yet not particularly dumb, movie. There is a lot going on in Norbit, but, if one isn't paying attention, the subtext (and there is subtext) might be missed behind the, well, fat jokes.

The film begins with Norbit (Murphy) reflecting on his life as an abandoned child raised by Mr. Wong (Murphy), the proprietor of a Chinese orphanage/takeout restaurant. Little Norbit is taunted and bullied by the other kids, save his one friend Kate, who is soon adopted out of his life. One day he's saved by the big bully Rasputia who declares them a couple, much to Norbit's shock and chagrin.

Years later, Norbit is cowed into marriage by Rasputia (now also played by Murphy) and her large brothers, who, as scary as they are, are a good deal less scary than their sis. Norbit, with his oversized afro and little-boy grin, is trapped in a life of belittling and abuse not terribly different from his childhood. Then one day Kate (Thandie Newton) returns to their Tennessee hometown to buy the orphanage where they grew up. Unfortunately, Kate has a boyfriend (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and Rasputia isn't about to let some little waify-waif steal away her man-let.

This is all pretty ordinary Murphy movie stuff, which is to say it's kinda funny most of the time and very funny some of the time. Murphy, a master of character and disguise on par with the great Peter Sellers (though hardly given his due), provides many of the funniest moments, but he does not upstage his very funny co-stars, even when Murphy does not play them himself.

So, what's the subtext? Oddly, the subtext can be found in the fat jokes. Or, more specifically, in the character of Rasputia, who is the butt — so to speak — of the fat jokes. Although Norbit is the endearing center of the story, the Cinderfella, one might say, of this tale of true love delayed, Rasputia is in fact the star of the movie. Rasputia has something to say, both literally and figuratively, about the question of beauty, and who gets to define it. She does. Without a trace of irony or self-consciousness, Rasputia dons sexy lingerie and bikinis and other flesh-exposing garb with the deepest sincerity in her right to think of herself, treat herself and believe herself to be beautiful. She's a bully, true enough, but this belies the reason for her overt aggression, which one supposes has something to do with the way she, as a big gal, has been treated her entire life. Rasputia learns to take the things that the beautiful are given.

Yes, there is a great deal of mockery of the obese in Norbit, but therein lies a bit of truth, too: We do mock the obese, don't we? Murphy and company, which includes solid performances by Eddie Griffin, Martin Lawrence, Terry Crews and others, at their worst merely point this out. But one can see how all of this might be read in a completely different way. The lithe Kate (who seems to transform into a white girl post her childhood persona) juxtaposed with the big, fat, mean Rasputia may simply look like more of the same fat-bashing humor we've come to expect in movies such as this, and it is, but that's not all it is. There is a mirror in this movie, reflecting a lot of things, not the least of which is that we are a mean, fat country, that ironically doesn't like mean fat people. Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Eddie Griffin
Director: Brian Robbins
Screenwriters: Eddie Murphy & Charles Murphy and Jay Scherick & David Ronn
Producers: John Davis and Eddie Murphy
Genre: Comedy
Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language
Running time: 103 min.
Release date: February 9, 2007

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