Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Norbit" & Frank Tashlin

I came to Eddie Murphy's "Norbit" belatedly, put off by the dubious trailer and accompanying print ads. And, frankly, the dismissive reviews didn't help either, even though it was clear to me that "Norbit" is the kind of movie for which reviewers save all their venom and bad jokes. But the hint of the film's political incorrectness and sense of anarchy kept me vaguely interested in it, along with those curious pans which seemed just a tad too excessive and hysterical. So I gave in and went.

Nothing prepared me for the treat I encountered and I suppose that a lot of my delight in the film is that it took me totally by surprise. Given all the buzz and hype that surround films these days, how often can you go into a film innocent and untarnished by someone else's opinion? Never.

For better or worse, "Norbit" is an authentic Jerry Lewis movie, an exhilarating throwback to the kind of movies that Lewis made, specifically the ones he made with director Frank Tashlin. It is genuinely, side-splittingly funny. While Murphy's timid "Nutty Professor" twins were ostensibly inspired by Lewis, "Norbit" is the real thing, and unapologetically so.

Not only does it feature Murphy's best screen work to date (sorry, "Dreamgirls" fans) and in three fully-realized roles, but it is elevated by Rick Baker's more-impressive-as-usual make-up work. The real revelation here, however, is Brian Robbins' direction. Nothing in his skimpy filmography ("Varsity Blues," "The Perfect Score," "Good Burger") gave me any indication that Robbins knew how to handle this kind of tricky material, which involves walking a very thin line. He's like Tashlin reincarnated.

Does it sound ridiculous to wax poetic about Brian Robbins' incredible mise en scène in "Norbit"? Probably.

So what?

Regarding the critics, either they went in with preconceived notions about "Norbit" and saw the film they wanted to see, or their deadline pressures led to hasty reviews. It is also rough for white critics (which most critics are) to endorse a film that has been accused beforehand (and unfairly) of exploiting negative black stereotypes. I don't get it. I can't explain why the critics didn't "get" it,
Mick LaSalle, the ever-astute film sage of The San Francisco Chronicle, being a rare exception. Nevertheless, "Norbit" is one of the few films today that I want to see again.

And speaking of Tashlin, too many of his breezy comedies from the the 1950s and early '60s have evaded home entertainment in any form. Sure, it's relatively easy to see his two Jayne Mansfield flicks, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "The Girl Can't Help It." But what about the many others?

Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of - and would love to see - "Susan Slept Here" (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds; "Artists and Models" (1955), with Martin and Lewis and Shirley MacLaine; "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" (1956), starring the wonderful Sheree North and Tom Ewell; "Say One for Me" (1959), again with Debbie Reynolds, this time with Bing Crosby and Robert Wagner; "Bachelor Flat" (1962), with Tuesday Weld and Terry-Thomas, and "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) with Danny Kaye and Cara Williams.

Release them, I say!

Note in Passing: Finally, a word of gratitude to Dave Kehr for his incredibly encouraging words about this post/my stance on "Norbit" and for his support in general. It means a lot.

(Artwork: top: Publicity shot of Eddie Murphy as "Norbit" and middle: the poster art for Frank Tashlin's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


Shaun Tompkins said...

Hey, Joe. Terrific blog. And couldn't agree with you more about "Norbit." Terribly misunderstood movie. Your Tashlin connection is spot on. Keep up the great work

Shelley said...

I had the same idea that you had about "Norbit" - that there might be something there. When you mentioned Frank Tashlin, I got it right away. I love Tashlin's work, particularly what when he worked with Lewis. You convinced me to check it out. Thanks.

ADELL W. said...

I have been remiss in not writing sooner. I read your reviews in the Sacramento Bee and enjoyed them very much. I couldn't understand how you could retire from a job that allows you to watch, study and inhale movies. Then I found your blog and discovered that you haven't stopped. Your take on "Norbit" is true to form. It's another example of a film that I had no desire to see -- until I read your review!

Anonymous said...

Woosh! I'm amazed by your write-up. Wish the layout could've been much light colored (easy on the eye).


Mike said...

Joe, sent the following to Dave Kehr re your blog:

Dave, Resnais’ “Muriel” is a seminal masterwork that,like a lot of other titles one might lump under that description, was promptly misunderstood and dismissed. Time is the true test of great films. Either they finally find their place or we finally catch up to them. The problem with a lot of film criticism is its hastiness. Thanks for spotlighting it. Bravo! Speaking of hastiness, thanks also for alerting your readers to Joe Baltake’s take on “Norbit” and the way it also was misunderstood and dismissed - and in the most facile way possible. His comparison of “Norbit” to the work of Tashlin is spot-on. I’ve been reading Baltake’s blog for a few months now and admire its unique focus. I mean, where else can you read a tiny tribute to Stuart Rosenberg on the eve of his death? Did anyone even know he died? Certainly no one else acknowledged his passing or his modest but valuable contributions to film. I’d like to see you address the work of Choi Dong-hoon, an excting new young filmmaker from South Korea.

Anonymous said...

From Dave Kehr's blog:

I also appreciate Dave’s linking to Baltake’s positive comments on “Norbit.” Frankly, I was mystified by the hostility of film critics to the film. While I was unfamiliar with the name Tashlin, the movie was obviously a take on the Jerry Lewis movies (and I had seen several of them in my youth) and, more to the point, an improvement upon them. This was one psychologically astute and daring movie: such a monster woman as Rasputia would indeed, after her initial attraction to her physically slight husband, very likely would grow dismissive and increasingly violent. This is strong stuff in a farce and the movie pulls it off without flinching.

If indeed, as Baltake says, most film critics are white, then maybe we do have a good case for “diversity”/Affirmative Action in the “film critic industry,” if you will pardon the phrase.

I say, right on!

James said...


Nice to encounter another Tashlin fan.

I don't know where you write from, but there's a programmed of Frank
Tashlin features and cartoons currently running at the George Eastman House here in Rochester
(ARTISTS AND MODELS tonight!). They're only showing one feature and two cartoons a week, but if you can make the trip, it's worth it.