It probably isn't possible for a single movie to reverse all social progress made since the civil-rights era, but Norbit, the latest broadside from Eddie Murphy, does its best to turn back the clock. There's enough material here to add another hour to Spike Lee's "reel of shame" in Bamboozled, but hideously offensive black stereotypes are merely the tip of the iceberg. Playing multiple roles—courtesy of makeup artist Rick Baker—Murphy adds a couple of other creatures to his repertoire: Mr. Wong, an Asian-American caricature only slightly less (or, in his terms, "srightly ress") appalling than Mickey Rooney's infamous turn in Breakfast At Tiffany's; and Rasputia, a snarling Big Momma type who stomps around like a rubber-suited monster in a Godzilla movie. It says something when Eddie Griffin's role as a would-be pimp named Pope Sweet Jesus rates low on the list of the film's offenses.
Donning thick-framed nerd glasses and sounding a bit like Mushmouth from the Fat Albert cartoons, Murphy plays the title character, a bullied weakling who grew up in Mr. Wong's orphanage/Chinese restaurant and lost his only true friend to adoption. A playground target, young Norbit becomes easy pickings for the gruesome Rasputia, who cows him into marriage and uses her thuggish older brothers to keep him in line. When his childhood friend returns in the lovely form of Thandie Newton, Norbit gets his hopes up, only to have them dashed by the news that Newton plays to marry smooth operator Cuba Gooding Jr. Newton intends to buy Mr. Wong's orphanage and take care of the children, but Gooding Jr. and Rasputia's brothers hatch a diabolical plan to convert it into a strip joint. It's up to poor Norbit to stop them in time.
Will the real Eddie Murphy please stand up? Since Coming To America, Murphy has often hidden behind several characters at once, and the effect has been distancing, which may be why people are so keen on his relatively unmasked performance in Dreamgirls. The three freaks he plays in Norbit are so far removed from the real Murphy—or the real anybody, for that matter—that it gives him a dangerous freedom to play them all as grotesquely as he pleases. After so much hemming and hawing over how the Farrelly brothers treated obesity in Shallow Hal, Murphy's post-PC Rasputia doesn't bother with such niceties; she's simply ugly inside and out, given to running over dogs and unleashing toxic gas, when she isn't spouting catchphrases stolen from Whitney Houston ("Hell to the no") and Joey Tribbiani ("How you doin'?"). Perhaps nothing offends any more, but surely everyone can agree this isn't funny, right?