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Mark Palermo finds things to admire in Norbit.

Declaring Norbit horrible isn’t unfounded, just too easy. Eddie Murphy’s comedy treads dangerous ground for anyone who hates the “it’s only a movie” defence. The first joke involves baby Norbit’s parents throwing him out a car window onto the front step of an orphanage. Before five minutes are up, Murphy has handed opponents their ammo.

Norbit grows from a socially inept kid to a socially inept adult (Murphy). Eager to belong, he ends up marrying Rasputia (Murphy), the vain, physically abusive, unfaithful, obese sister of a gang of three who strike fear in the townspeople.

In the process of offending humanist sensibility, Murphy (who conceived the screenplay with brother Charlie) is delivering a populist social comedy. Of course, this movie isn’t aiming for subtle satire. Portraying a society made of walking cartoons is how Murphy turns Norbit into grand vaudeville.

Anyone in doubt of Murphy’s contempt for expected social customs needs to acquaint or reaquaint themselves with Eddie Murphy Raw. Less funny and tightly written than his earlier stand-up concert film Delirious, Raw is Murphy gutting himself on stage—letting it all out under the veil of comedy and revealing psychological wounds.

Norbit is curious due to this match of cynical disgust with its will for mass approval. The movie is difficult for me to dismiss outright because of how strange it is. Beneath the negative gender and racial types that surround Norbit is a comedy of oppression. Seeing his childhood sweetheart now that she’s grown up into Thandie Newton makes Norbit want to escape the emasculation of his marriage. Murphy’s ability to play both passive and aggressive types has, beyond the broadstroke generalizations he plays with, a sense that he’s spent a long time absorbing these personalities. His work is great—true comic performances in a movie that often becomes a steamroller headache. Norbit isn’t the zero-effort offense that the awful Epic Movie is. It’s just that the laugh ratio never rises to ceaseless zaniness. When it works, Norbit’s honesty about its exaggerations makes for a more embraceable portrait of American culture than Dreamgirls. When it’s asking viewers to take heart in meanness, the laughs don’t taste so good.

Hannibal Rising

Cannibals were children once too. That’s the insight of Hannibal Rising, where sympathy for the devil verges on idolatry. Ridley Scott’s 2001 Hannibal turned the titular serial killer into a wisecracking clown. Hannibal Rising doesn’t try to make Hannibal loveable so much as justified. He’s an elitist who murders people that don’t live up his moral standards. This might rope in the suckers who view the Saw films’ Jigsaw as a genius. For others, it’s an ethos that makes Hannibal obnoxious. Sure, seeing one’s baby sister get eaten by Nazis isn’t easy. But to stay invested in the doldrum vigilantism of Hannibal Rising means siding with a psychopath.

Gaspard Ulliel plays Hannibal in his formative years as one-note and anti-social—a brooding elitist whose expression only changes at the happy thought of seeing his enemies perish. It does take guts for director Peter Webber to end the movie with a visual and dramatic homage to The Godfather Part II. And Hannibal Rising is shot with a richness of light and shadow that rises above expectation. It’s the portrayal of Lecter that never sells. He’s neither tragic nor admirable. Over the course of a film, he’s not interesting either.

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