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Despite miraculous makeup work, Norbit is a painfully one-note comedy

| Friday, Feb. 9, 2007

Someday — someday very soon — he'll be Academy Award winner Eddie Murphy. And that's what he'll be for the rest of his life.

For now, though, he's "Norbit." And Rasputia. And Mr. Wong.

Yes, Murphy once again crawls inside the fat suit, Klump-style. Painful as this often is to watch because it can be so painfully unfunny and one-note, Murphy does manage to wring a laugh out of you here and there, even though you know better.

He just goes for it. He immerses himself completely, regardless of the part he's playing. You at least have to appreciate his commitment, if not his taste in material.

Murphy shares screenwriting credit — which probably consists of him riffing, one of his longtime strengths — along with brother Charles Murphy, Jay Scherick and David Ronn. Brian Robbins ("Varsity Blues," "Hard Ball") directs with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but he does know well enough to leave Murphy alone to do his thing.

The real star, though is Rick Baker, the six-time Oscar winner and the best in the business when it comes to special makeup effects. Baker ("An American Werewolf in London," "Men in Black," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video) doesn't just pile layers of latex on Murphy and send him out into the world resembling a cousin of Martin Lawrence's Big Momma or Tyler Perry's Madea. He makes you feel like you're watching a real person — an obnoxious one, one that's usually a racial stereotype — but still, real.

It is an undeniably impressive feat, especially during the scene in which the rotund Rasputia visits a water park in a pink bikini. You see rolls, you see stretch marks, you see infinite dimples of cellulite. You don't want to look at it — and yet you can't turn your eyes away.

Unfortunately there's also a movie underneath all that, too.

Murphy stars as the titular Norbit, a lisping nerd whose hair and wardrobe are stuck in 1974. Norbit was raised in an orphanage and has long been picked on, but he's found salvation through two women in his life: Kate, the sweet little girl who befriended him in his youth (and who comes back as an adult played by Thandie Newton), and the brutish, bullying Rasputia, who commandeers him in junior high school and eventually becomes his wife.

The head-swiveling, finger-wagging Rasputia comes from a long line of comic types.

So does Murphy's other character, orphanage owner Mr. Wong, who chronically mispronounces all his L's and R's and who dislikes blacks and Jews. (Murphy is especially unrecognizable in this role; it's reminiscent of his work in "Coming to America," for which Baker also supplied the makeup effects.)

Both might seem offensive if you took the time to take them seriously. But that would be a serious waste of energy.

There's a plot somewhere in there too: Kate wants to buy the orphanage and run it, although her fiance (Cuba Gooding Jr. playing a bad guy for once) wants to turn it into a strip club along with Rasputia's thug brothers. There's a wedding to interrupt, which allows fellow manic comic Eddie Griffin to strut around in a pimp suit with a gospel choir.

Hopefully the awards and acclaim Murphy has received for his work in "Dreamgirls" will inspire him to think twice from now on about puerile pictures like "Norbit." The combination of the two speaks to his versatility, if not his pride. Additional Information:

Details

Norbit Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language Two stars

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