Take Two

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Norbit & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & Y & lt;/span & ou wanna watch a fat chick break a bed by jumping on it? Wanna watch her barely squeeze into an inflatable bouncy castle, then eventually deflate it with her girth? Wanna watch her breasts honk the horn of her too-small car as she struggles to drive?

If the fat chick were actually Eddie Murphy, would you want to watch then?

OK, all right. You need persuading. How about this: Before there's ever a fat chick onscreen, there's an old Chinese guy named Mr. Wong. He runs an orphanage out of his wonton palace. The kids play with the restaurant's chickens like they're pets (watch out for bird flu, you little scamps!), only to have the poultry beheaded in front of their eyes.

When Norbit (also Eddie Murphy) is flung from a passing car onto Wong's doorstep, the man laments that he'll never be able to get the kid adopted because he's both ugly and black. He says things like, "Ohhhh, rou vary brack, and vary ugry. No run rill adropt rou becrause you so brack... and so ugry," replacing every third consonant with an "r," reminders that Wong is some sort of Asian in addition to being some kind of racist. Then we realize Wong's not even played by an Asian actor. He's Eddie Murphy playing an Asian man playing a grotesque Oriental caricature.

In Norbit, creators Eddie and Charlie Murphy (he of Chappelle's Show) have given us a 102-minute minstrel show. It's tough to recognize initially, because rather than just acting in metaphorical black face, Murphy's hobbling around in Asian face as well. And fat black face.

Is that the worst part, the borderline racism? Or is it the fact that Norbit isn't funny at all? I honestly didn't laugh once. Not as the fat people ate obnoxiously, squeezed in places, broke stuff and farted at inopportune times; not as the Asian people prepared food in unsanitary conditions and wore their biases on their sleeves; not as the blacks ate their ribs, drank their wine coolers, whored out their women and faked pregnancies to keep their men.

Then there's Norbit himself, who is, strangely, none of the above. Ostensibly black, his slight build, concave chest and sleeve-worn neuroses make him out far more as an Afro'ed Woody Allen. He's accepted by his white neighbors and the Asian restaurateur more easily than any of the black people in the movie -- except for the love interest, she has to be black. (Wouldn't want to suggest a cross-pollination of the races.)

The brothers should have painted Murphy's face white, cast Brittany Murphy as the nicotine-stained trailer nymph who steals him away from his fat black perdition and called it a day.

Dave Chappelle (who did more for Charlie Murphy's credibility as a comedian than Eddie ever did) tried to overturn this tendency to stereotype. Using misdirection and a sense of the absurd to play on societal prejudices while also playing to them, he exposed biases by ramping up the ludicrousness and discomfort until we had no choice but to laugh at the incongruence. He got us to say, effectively, "It's funny how we stereotype." People mistook that deft commentary, though for the bludgeon wielded in films like Norbit, which merely seeks to say "stereotypes are funny."

No wonder Chappelle went crazy.