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‘Norbit’ is nothing new for Eddie Murphy fans

Once again the comedian milks laughs out of wearing a fat suit

Few visual effects are as special as Rick Baker’s makeup for Eddie Murphy’s comedies. Whether he’s aging Murphy in “Life,” or providing convincing flesh to fill out fat suits in the “Nutty Professor” comedies, Baker always makes something of the collaboration.

The first “Nutty Professor” (1996) won an Oscar for Baker’s contribution and a National Society of Film Critics’ prize for Murphy’s performance as several members of the same family. It remains a tour-de-force for both men, as well as an early indication of the versatility that would finally earn an Oscar nomination for Murphy in “Dreamgirls.”

Unfortunately, the more Murphy and Baker work together, the more desperate and derivative their scripts appear. Have they just become more interested in achieving effects than in telling stories? It’s still fun to watch Murphy disappear into wildly different characters in their latest collaboration, “Norbit,” but the movie lacks momentum and seems to end about a dozen times.

Murphy plays three major roles. He’s most appealing as nerdy, confidence-deprived Norbit, who never fell out of love with his childhood sweetheart, Kate (Thandie Newton), a girl he met at the Golden WonTon Restaurant and Orphanage. Murphy also plays Norbit’s adoptive father, Mr. Wong, and Norbit’s large and monstrously selfish wife, Rasputia. 

With her lethally long fingernails and pounds of raging flesh that refuse to fit into even a queen-size bathing suit, Rasputia is a nightmare vision who might have been dreamed up by Fellini during an especially restless night. Still, she’s never as funny as she’s clearly intended to be. Perhaps that has something to do with her source.

Murphy and his brother, Charles, were inspired to write the script after watching Internet footage of a married couple having a street fight. They were shocked by the wife’s domination of her husband. In Eddie’s words, the movie is “about that battered husband.”

It’s an interesting notion for a comedy, but the Murphys fail to follow through and carry the idea to any kind of logical conclusion. They turned over the script to the writing team of David Ronn and Jay Scherick, who previously paired up for remakes of “I Spy” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The lightweight director, Brian Robbins, did last year’s lame Tim Allen remake of “The Shaggy Dog.”

The result, not surprisingly, plays like Retread City, with Eddie Murphy once more using a fat suit to milk laughs. Rasputia never becomes much more than a walking sight gag; she’s not remotely threatening as a dominatrix. Norbit’s struggle to assert himself is so formulaic that the movie seems to stop whenever it pays attention to him. Mr. Wong never comes into focus.

It’s painful to watch Cuba Gooding Jr. wasting his time in the cardboard role of Kate’s con-artist boyfriend. Newton visibly struggles to add weight to her character, who is even less substantial than the runaway wife she recently played in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Why not cast Murphy in these roles as well? The novelty value might make them marginally more entertaining.