As absurd as it may sound, there's a theory floating around Hollywood that Eddie Murphy's Best Supporting Actor loss for 'Dreamgirls' at the Oscars earlier this year was a direct result of his role in 'Norbit.'
The theory goes like this: by now, it's well established that the Academy loves a turnaround story -- a once-dismissed actor who manages to redefine his career with a single winning role. After earning overwhelmingly positive reviews for his serious turn in 'Dreamgirls,' Murphy seemed headed down this path himself. The Oscar buzz was that after years of slumming in shamelessly commercial, lowest-common denominator claptrap, the once-brilliant Eddie Murphy had finally re-emerged from his slumber, turning in a classy, Oscar-worthy performance. But in a classic case of poor timing, just as Murphy's Oscar campaign kicked into high gear this past January, giant 'Norbit' billboards were erected all over the country, showing the actor straddled by a giant, grotesquely obese woman (also played by Eddie Murphy).
While I'm not one much for conspiracy theories, it's not hard to imagine that Academy members might be reluctant to bestow their highest honor on an actor so continually willing to squander his talents. As a big fan of Murphy's early work on "Saturday Night Live" and in such '80s classics as '48 Hrs.' and 'Trading Places,' I have to admit that I personally haven't understood his career choices over the last decade or so. Is he really only being offered total dreck, or does the one-time superstar just not care? How else to explain such mediocre efforts like 'The Adventures of 'Pluto Nash,' 'The Haunted Mansion' and 'Daddy Day Care?'
Unfortunately, 'Norbit' continues this lackluster trend, with Murphy turning in yet another lazy, ignorant and just plain mean-spirited comedy. I think I may have laughed twice during the whole movie, and that's being charitable.
The plot as such is besides the point -- 'Norbit' is just another excuse for Murphy to parade around in various latex get-ups as multiple characters. Similar to Sherman Klump from the actor's 'Nutty Professor' movies, Norbit is another mild-mannered, socially-challenged orphan who's secretly in love with the woman of his dreams (Thandie Newton), but lacks the self-confidence to woo her. But the "twist" to 'Norbit' is that our hero also happens to be married -- to the monstrous Rasputia (also Murphy, in another Rick Baker-devised fat suit) -- and must find a way to break it off.
Like 'The Nutty Professor,' 'Norbit' is filled with fat jokes, ethnic stereotypes and negative put-downs. The story has nothing new to say, except that being in love is grand -- and, I suppose, that women will like you so long as you're not fat. The direction by Brian Robbins ('The Shaggy Dog,' 'Varsity Blues') is pedestrian, with little visual flair, while the supporting cast is wasted -- Thandie Newton, in particular, is such a lively, fresh presence that it's a shame to see her wasted in movies like this and 'Crash.'
But the biggest disappointment of 'Norbit' is Murphy himself. Simply put, he seems to be on autopilot -- his Norbit is a borrowed creation, cribbing liberally from his own better, more inspired characterizations of Buckwheat, Bowfinger and Sherman Klump. I suppose Murphy can do this kind of stuff in his sleep, but that's exactly how it comes off here. Perhaps if he dug deeper to uncover some genuine heart and soul in his characters, all the latex mugging might feel a bit fresher, but as is, 'Norbit' is a big fat waste of time.
Though I'm not convinced Murphy lost his 'Dreamgirls' Oscar because of 'Norbit,' I can't help but hope that the suggestion might give him pause next time he considers taking on a movie as listless and uninspired as this one.
'Norbit' comes to HD DVD simultaneous with its debut on Blu-ray (and standard-def DVD). Unfortunately, I wasn't all that impressed with this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer.
The source itself seems to be in perfectly fine shape, with no major blemishes and a very film-like veneer of fine grain, but the transfer is consistently noisy, to the point where it's distracting. Colors are too saturated and often smear -- fleshtones in particular are pasty and unpleasant. Detail suffers throughout, giving the image a flat, soft look. Contrast is also hot, so whites bloom often. At least there are no major compression issues, such as macroblocking. Still, 'Norbit' is probably the weakest new release I've yet seen from Paramount, falling below the quality standard I've come to expect from a new release on high-def.
Paramount provides a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track at 1.5mbps for this HD DVD release, a nice improvement over the 640kbps Dolby Digital track on the Blu-ray. Granted, 'Norbit's generally bland sound design doesn't particularly benefit from the upgrade, but added bits are added bits.
In any case, both tracks effectively showcase a few nice moments of envelopment, including some discrete effects channeled to the rears (usually anytime Murphy falls over in his fat suit -- cue guffaws), and some bleed from the various classic R&B/pop songs on the soundtrack. Dynamic range is average if perfectly fine, with passable low bass. Dialogue, though, felt a tad too low in the mix -- I had trouble understanding some of Murphy's more stylized speech, and found myself reaching to increase the volume on more than one occasion. In short, I've certainly heard worse than 'Norbit,' but this one's mediocre at best.
Given 'Norbit's incomprehensible domestic box office take of over $100 million, I suppose it shouldn't surprise that Paramount has given the film the special edition treatment on disc. A straight-forward and professionally produced package, the extras included here aren't terribly notable, but at least Paramount has presented most of them in 1080p/MPEG-2 video.
In lieu of any audio commentary, there are three featurettes. All are compiled from the same batch of behind-the-scenes chats with cast and crew (including what looks like an upconverted generic press interview with Eddie Murphy), plus some making-of footage. "The Making of 'Norbit' (21 minutes) offers an overview of the project, which seems to bear out my notion that 'Norbit' was just another excuse for Murphy to do more characterizations under heavy latex. Unfortunately, there isn't much insight here, as much of cast simply regurgitates the plot. "The Stunts of Norbit" (11 min.) seems a bit of a stretch, as the film really doesn't boast any amazing physical feats, at least compared to a stunt-heavy action flick. "Man of a Thousand Faces" (4 min.) could have been the most interesting, but instead it's way too short, and none of Oscar-winner Rick Baker's creations are covered in any serious depth. (It's also the only video extra here in 480i video only.) In short, all three of these featurettes feel quite slight -- as if they were trailers for a real making-of documentary.
Next we have a collection of 14 Deleted Scenes, with a total runtime of only 8 minutes. Most are short little vignettes, with various off-color jokes and more mean-spirited humor. At least the quality is, again, rather good and easily on par with the main feature. Note that there is also an additional "Power Tap" mock commercial featuring Damon Wayans included here, but I didn't find it at all funny.
Rounding out the extras is a Photo Gallery with approximately sixty production stills (most featuring the cast and director Brian Robbins mugging off-camera), and the film's original Theatrical Trailer.
The latest entry in his "man of a thousand faces" series of latex comedies, Eddie Murphy's 'Norbit' isn't very funny, nor is it in any way original. If you enjoyed 'The Nutty Professor,' I recommend just watching it again, rather than suffering through this inferior ripoff. This HD DVD release is also just fair -- the extras are nothing memorable, and the transfer and soundtrack are of mediocre quality (although this HD DVD's 1.5mbps Dolby Digital-Plus track is a slight step up from the 640kbps Dolby Digital track on the Blu-ray). 'Norbit,' alas, is one to avoid.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.