Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan Rabin: Norbit

"Tell it to the hand, because the innate sense of human decency ain't listening!"

"Tell it to the hand, because the innate sense of human decency ain't listening!"

For Control Nathan Rabin, I have sought out options that aren’t just bad but punishing. I’m looking for movies to be endured rather than enjoyed. I’m seeking out torments rather than treats. Oh sweet blessed Lord have the movies the kind-hearted sadists who pledge to the Patreon page for this site chosen for me proven to be torture. 

If I wasn’t professionally entitled to watch and write about all the movies you picked, I definitely would have bailed on Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party well before the director-star started patting himself on the back for being against slavery, unlike all those mean old Democrats from, um, one hundred and fifty two years ago who were in favor of it. And I never would have subjected myself to 50 Shades Of Black in the first place if it weren’t for the column. 

You folks are making me earn my money. I’ve never felt less honored to make a living writing about pop culture than during the hundred and four minutes I spent suffering through Eddie Murphy’s 2007 abomination Norbit. Donors to the site had a choice to subject me to either Steve Bannon’s fawning hagiography Sarah Palin: The Undefeated or Norbit and the widely, if not universally reviled Eddie Murphy smash won by a sizable margin. I say widely because I’m sure Armond White acclaimed Norbit as the only true, kind movie about race, gender and body image ever created, and a peerless humanist masterpiece on par with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. 

It’s easy to see why you glorious bastards chose to punish me with the movie. Norbit doesn’t just promise to be bad; it promises to be unwatchable. It promises to be brutal. It promises to punish anyone foolish or masochistic enough to want to experience it. It delivers on that promise. I’ve made my living wading through shit and Norbit left me feeling exhausted and defeated, and deeply concerned about the state of Eddie Murphy’s soul and psyche. 

Norbit is morbidly fascinating in part because it is so clearly a personal project for the often mercenary Murphy. This is not a movie Murphy reluctantly signed onto because there was a 20 million dollar payday for a few months work. No, this is one of the only films in Murphy’s filmography in which he shares both a screenwriting a story credit. As if that weren’t personal enough, Murphy co-wrote the story, and collaborated on the screenplay, with his brother Charlie, who recently died after enjoying a robust second life as Chappelle’s Show’s resident storyteller. 

Murphy has had an extraordinary career. He’s about as successful as a man can be in our society. Murphy has been a massive commercial force since he was twenty years old. As his stint on Saturday Night Live and performances in movies like 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places prove, he is a prodigious talent, an enormously funny, handsome and appealing natural-born movie star whose films have grossed billions.

Norbit was Murphy’s chance, as star, co-star, co-screenwriter and primary creative voice, to say something personal. It was an opportunity to lovingly play characters dreamed up in his fertile imagination. Murphy had a chance to make a movie that represents his sensibility and his worldview in its purest form. After decades in the spotlight, what did Murphy have to say? Well, judging by the film, he thinks fat black women are disgusting, sub-human monsters, and that there is endless comedy to be gleaned from depicting this monstrousness in the most cartoonish, hateful manner imaginable. 

Judging by the film, Murphy also apparently thinks it’s a goddamn shame that society no longer finds hilarity in old Asian men speaking in broken English about Chinese restaurants and dry cleaning on account of such humor being “incredibly racist” and “rooted in the ugly stereotypes of yesteryear”, to the point where he decided he needed to bring back that rich vein of anachronistic, racist humor even if meant slathering on yellow face himself so he could play wisecracking, racist orphanage proprietor Mr. Wong. 

Murphy as Wong is so very wrong

Murphy as Wong is so very wrong

These were the truths Murphy felt he must share with the world: fat black women are disgusting monsters, especially if they have sex drives, Asian people talk funny and run dry cleaning establishments and the black community is full of pimps, hustlers and sleazy low-level criminals out to transform orphanages into titty bars.

These are the pimps in your neighborhood...

These are the pimps in your neighborhood...

Last week’s Control Nathan Rabin entry, Santa with Muscles, also revolved around an orphanage in peril. This might lead you to ask, “Are movies involving orphanages disproportionately terrible in memorable ways?” I would say yes, with Norbit as exhibit A. The movie casts Murphy as the title character, an orphan who was hurled from a passing car by his parents into Mr. Wong’s orphanage as the beginning of a lifetime of horrific abuse sunnily endured. 

In the orphanage, a young Norbit falls in love with Kate Thomas, a woman that will grow up to be Thandie Newton. They’re supposed to be the same age even if, when the film was released, Murphy was a spry forty-six and Newton thirty-four. Oh well, what’s a little twelve year age difference among children the same age? 

Alas, Kate leaves the orphanage and Norbit soon falls under the nightmare spell of Rasputia, a morbidly obese, over-sexed misogynistic nightmare of a woman Murphy plays not as someone but rather as something, not as a woman per se but rather as a mythological beast that has assumed the rough form of a female human being and is running amok.

Norbit marries Rasputia and initially appears to be too gullible to realize his misfortune but when he discovers Rasputia in the act of sexual congress with a screamingly effeminate lothario played by 50 Shades Of Black star Marlon Wayans, he comes to realize that maybe he’s not lucky to be married to the worst human being in film history, especially once Kate moves back in town and seems to be aggressively courting the unattractive, lisping nerd despite him being married and her being engaged to a sleazy con artists played by Cuba Gooding Jr. 

I like to think that Gooding Jr. is here as a bad luck charm. The Murphy brothers wanted to make an appalling, unbelievably offensive and terrible turkey for the ages, and they understood that Cuba Gooding Jr. has a special connection to the bad movie Gods. They knew that he would help them in their goal to make a movie so terrible that it very well could have cost Murphy an Academy Award. Murphy was up for Best Supporting Actor for Dreamgirls the year Norbit depressed everyone by becoming a sizable commercial hit, and the conventional wisdom holds that Hollywood so hated Norbit that they couldn’t reward its star with an Oscar, even for a different film. 

Norbit wants the audience to be viscerally disgusted by Rasputia. It wants audiences to projectile vomit with laughter and revulsion at the idea that someone like Rasputia would want to have sex or think of herself as a sexual creature when Norbit lets us know that sex should be reserved for people who look like Thandie Newton and are demure and non-threatening. 

Newton is supposed to be Norbit’s reward for allowing himself to be Rasputia's doormat for decades but Norbit isn’t really “nice” so much as he’s spineless. There is a big difference. When Norbit discovers, for example, that Rasputia is cheating on him, for example, he calls her “queen of whores” and later a “saddle tramp whore bitch pig” while performing a puppet show for orphans at the orphanage. 

Norbit wants us to root for the protagonist’s happiness despite the abundant cruelty it rains down upon him because he’s the kind of guy who does things like perform puppet shows for orphans. Yet the fact that the character spits out misogynistic profanity in a rage while doing so made a slightly bigger impression on me. 

This is one of those awful movies that views our innate revulsion at seeing violence against women as a fun, neat obstacle for it to scoot around en route to getting the audience to root, and root lustily for Rasputia to have the shit beaten out of her, by a woman, if possible, but they’re not exactly picky. 

Accordingly, the movie climaxes with Mr. Wong (a horrifying representation of Murphy's love of racist caricatures and hatred for humanity) hurling a harpoon at Rasputia (an even more disturbing representation of those qualities) the film implies enters one of her orifices, causing her to race down the street in sped-up motion like Benny Hill during a montage set to "Yakkety Sax." It's funny because of the implied horrific violence committed against a woman.

Don't worry, though. Rasputia lives on for a final joke about her working in a sleazy titty bar where she favors the horrified onlookers with what I would love to believe is the final Flashdance tribute/parody ever. Jesus, that movie had been out for twenty four years when Norbit was released. I would also love to think that Norbit's titty-bar ending marks the final time Eddie Murphy dressed in drag to cruelly mock fat women or that we found humor in that kind of cruelty. I would be wrong on all counts, of course. 

Norbit would not exist in a world that valued and respected the bodies of larger women. The movie at times suggests a crude scatological fairy tale about a stammering, geeky Prince who overcomes the evil machinations of the evil ogre he’s married to in order to win the heart of the beautiful princess he’s in love with. 

To really drive home the idea that fat is evil and skinny is pure, the movie gives its star a love interest who is 98 pounds of gamine, Audrey Hepburn lady-like perfection in Thandie Newton, as opposed to the screaming, incoherent aggression of Rasputia.

Can you spot which of these body types is heralded and which is cruelly mocked?

Can you spot which of these body types is heralded and which is cruelly mocked?

What the hell is broken and wrong inside Murphy that he felt he needed to dream up Rasputia, and then endure hours of torment in the make-up chair every day to bring her to life? Why did Murphy think she was funny? What weird demons or complexes was he working through by making the film?

I was somehow nearly as insulted by the movie’s sugarless vanilla romance as I was by the visceral nastiness of its misogyny, sexism, racism and body and slut-shaming. Norbit promotes the fiction that if you are a nice guy on any level (and Norbit really isn’t that nice of a guy, he’s just less terrible than the monsters around him) then you deserve to have the love, companionship, sex and marriage of the most beautiful women in the world. You deserve a 10, even if you’re a 4.  

If you are a woman in a movie, then there’s a good chance that you’ll get to fuck and marry a similarly good looking man but there is also a very good chance that you will be cast as the prize the nerd, slob, loser, dunce or Kevin James at the center of the film receives for, I dunno, not being an egregiously sexist shithead? 

Casting Thandie Newton as the love interest of Norbit would be like making a movie pitched to female audiences and having the male love interest be Channing Tatum and the female lead be an overflowing bag of dirty laundry with a woman’s face scrawled on it. Actually, an an overflowing bag of dirty laundry with a woman’s face scrawled on it may actually represent a more appealing option than Norbit, who is essentially 1970s-era Bill Cosby crossed with a lisping Bullwinkle J. Moose with a little Urkel thrown in for pizazz. 

I expected, and hoped, that Newton would at least be afforded the gift of limited screen time. So I was surprised and a little horrified to discover that much of the film is devoted to this beautiful, smart, dignified, elegant, accomplished, worldly all-time beauty falling in love with an ugly, unpleasant, underemployed nerd. 

Oh Norbit, you truly are worthy of the love of a woman who looks like Thandie Newton!

Oh Norbit, you truly are worthy of the love of a woman who looks like Thandie Newton!

The film oscillates wildly between violently clashing tones. It trawls aggressively through the nastiest, most feces-encrusted recesses of the sewer in a desperate and wholly unsuccessful bid for laughs rooted wholly in the audience’s ostensible disgust and visceral revulsion towards large, loud black women, and one loud, large black woman in particular. Yet the “romantic” scenes are bland and drippy and almost entirely devoid of jokes. 

Norbit didn’t just fail to entertain me or make me laugh. It took something out of me. I felt somehow diminished for having seen it. It depressed me, and continues to depress me. There are movies that are bad, and then there are movies that make you despair for the future of humanity, that make your soul hurt, that make you sad. Norbit is that kind of movie. 

Something is seriously wrong with Eddie Murphy. But there’s something seriously wrong with us as well. Sure, Murphy helped dream up Norbit and make it a horrifying reality, but we’re the ones who made it a huge, hugely depressing hit. 

I think we should engage in a little soul-searching. If nothing else, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and try to figure out why we find comedy based more or less exclusively on viciously mocking the bodies of larger women acceptable, let alone something that should be rewarded with money, success, and, in the case of Norbit, one of the most WTF Oscar nominations this side of Suicide Squad's. Norbit got the nod for Rick Baker's make-up. Sure enough, through make-up, editing and masterful work from Murphy, Norbit makes it easy to buy that multiple characters played by the same actor are inhabiting the same space and interacting with each other. That is indeed an incredible technical achievement undermined ever so slightly by having the three characters realistically interacting be a trio of the worst, most ill-conceived and obnoxiously realized characters in film history. For Murphy, that's a hat trick along the lines of contracting three terrible venereal diseases the first time you have sex. It's a distinction, all right, but not one anyone would ever want, and to be honest, there are venereal diseases that are probably preferable to Norbit. 

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