Armond White's recent, seemingly much talked about review of Norbit is dumbfounding in a number of respects. First, White, through critical and rhetorical bullshitting, spins Eddie Murphy's unoriginal, unfunny, and downright offensive caricatures as "explosive," "democratizing," and as existing "on a realistic continuum." What "realistic continuum" would that be? "We laugh at their types since we, in fact, recognize their types," he says. By employing that pseudo-populist pronoun "we," AW suggests that viewers should buy into the lazy offensiveness of Norbit without considering that the characters therein are nothing but hand-me-down stereotypes culled from a brain dead American popular culture. The "freakishness" on display in Norbit isn't a creative response generated from "black comics self-consciously relat[ing] to ideas of normalcy," just lowest common denominator pandering: Murphy-as-Rasputia simply occasions typical fat jokes, from shattered beds to water-emptying splashes in swimming pools to bikini waxes. But from the way he writes, you'd think Armond never saw a director use a wide angle shot to grotesquely distort features: "A perfect illustration of [director Brian Robbins'] buoyant sketch-style is the water amusement park sequence where Rasputia appears in a bikini and mounts a water slide." Didn't Mike Judge recently mock this level of devolved anti-entertainment in Idiocracy? Next up: Armond champions the buoyant artistry of Ow! My Balls!
It should be noted by now that White's tone-deaf sense of humor leads right back to his remarkable inability to call out caricatured depictions of minorities because the two glaring critical blind spots are intertwined. White cites the following as an example of the "sly social commentary" contained in Norbit : "When Mr. Wong querulously says 'Blacks and Jews love Chinese food. Go figure!' it tweaks the anomalies of American habit at which ethnic comics are rightly bemused." This is not social commentary but the weakest, most cliched sort of observation. Read Armond's statement again: Murphy's "joke" doesn't even deserve to be called that. It doesn't provoke laughter or insight or anything at all save dull recognition (get it? Because both blacks and Jews eat Chinese food!) As for Mr. Wong, what can we say? He's only the most insulting Asian caricature we've seen since Fu Manchu (thanks to Mark Asch for directing us to Walter Chaw's terrific review of Norbit: "[Wong] reveals his dream to be a whaler, making him more Japanese than Chinese, but hey, a slant's a slant.") Ironically, in the film Norbit tells Mr. Wong that the latter's quip about African-Americans "running fast" might be racist, and Wong admits as much -- Murphy tries to deflect similar, potential charges against his lampoonery by literally questioning himself on screen, a disingenuous move that, like the Mr. Wong character as a whole, White fails to catch onto. Neither does our man wrestle with the film's misogyny, which comes forth most clearly when Eddie Griffin's trite pimp character invites two women to work for him and instead of receiving a slap in the face is serenaded with their willing pleas to be his "ho." Nor does he investigate Rasputia herself, the butt of most of the film's humor and disgust, let off the hook by AW with this pretentious, circumventing gibberish: "Rasputia herself is an outsized image of the frustrations that fuel obesity and black female stereotypes that turn into (often comical) rage." She's just one of the nearly unanimous face-pulling African-American cartoons crying out self-hatred in nearly every frame of the film. Like Murphy, White doesn't seem to notice, or care.
What White's done with his review of Norbit is destroy the trust of anyone -- from those hanging on his every word to those casting a permanent wary eye -- who reads his work to look to him for incisive, relevant criticism. There are two possibilities here: either White's critical faculties are far less than stellar in understanding cinema -- how films impart meaning and for what reasons -- or else he has other motivations. If it's the latter, then those motivations are transparent. Maybe we're in denial, but to us there's not a single sentence in this review that feels genuine -- as Victor Lazlo describes Rick in Casablanca, White writes "like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart." White knows his audience, knows the general consensus of the high-minded, left-leaning criticism his readers usually refer to, and frequently goes in the other direction to upset their comfort. This sometimes provides provocative challenges, but more often than not it finds AW taking up positions that seem antithetical to his own intelligence and common sense. That's why in our last post we called attention to excerpts from White's review of Coming to America -- he once could call it like he saw it. But times have changed. When a film like Norbit (see also Napoleon Dynamite, the Farrelly Brothers' atrocities) comes along and provides a perfect opportunity to show he's down with "humanistic" low-brow eye-junk and against the rest of the critical community (and able to name-check Capra and Chaplin in order to do so; remember, he still has to prove his hipster credentials and raise this crap to level of Cinematic Art), Armond takes it. Even though the film, by any serious standard, is hateful. And racist. And unfunny. And shallow. And all the things that would prompt even the most knee-jerk contrarian to confess taste enough to reject it as satire or entertainment. And if our second hypothesis is true, (and we're not sure if it's more or less depressing to imagine than Armond's possible critical ineptitude), then the ramifications are clear: Armond White cares more about how others perceive and react to him than he does about writing incisive, socially and artistically astute criticism. A scary thought.