Rants & Raves
EDDIE MURPHY'S SUPERSIZED TALENT IN THE KLUMPS DISPLAYS HUMOR, HEART—AND, YES, A GIANT HAMSTER
A review of The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
By Lynne Murray
I should start by confessing that I already liked Sherman Klump a lot from the Eddie Murphy's first Nutty Professor film. I was looking forward to spending some time with him in the Nutty Professor II, but my reaction to this film was not quite what I had expected from seeing preview clips and reading reviews. I expected to use the word "tour de force" and as you can see, I just did. That phrase certainly is appropriate for a film where the lead actor plays eight parts brilliantly. But as I watched Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, I realized what a unique creation the character of Sherman Klump is.
Many of us have observed that as fat people, suffering frequent wounds from this culture, adversity has forced us to dig deep and develop personal strengths and talents that might otherwise have been untapped. No one would choose to be fat in this insane social climate. And very few, if any, other actors come to mind who could have or possibly would have made a film with so many fat characters in it.
There are certain risks in using so many fat characters—an essay in The New Yorker Magazine accused Murphy of self-hatred pretty much solely on the evidence that he put on several "fat suits" for the film. The essay suggested that Murphy's characterizations of Professor Klump's relatives verged on racial stereotypes. To my mind, that demonstrates just how deeply the taboo against fat characters has penetrated into cultural thinking. I doubt that the author would have dared make such a charge if the characters in the film had not been fat. But because fat people are acceptable only as targets of abuse, not as heroes of movies—he felt free to make the connection that putting so many fat characters into a movie was a demonstration of Murphy's own low self-esteem.
Yet Sherman Klump and his king-sized, yet fully functional Klump family triumph over these sniping opinions to provide a very sweet, funny, romantic comedy. After seeing the film, I recalled that Robert Ebert said in his televised review of the film that even though the Buddy Love character looks more like Eddie Murphy without make-up, when he is on screen you want the Klumps back. I also couldn't help but think of a poignant moment in the movie Tootsie where Jessica Lange tells Dustin Hoffman that she misses Dorothy—the character he created while dressed as a woman.
Something about the painstakingly conceived and executed disguises in The Klumps allows Murphy to manifest a usually hidden gentleness, sweetness and vulnerability. He displayed a sketchy but similar dynamic in Bowfinger, where he played the sexy (but insane) superstar and his dimwitted (but sweet) brother.
The Klumps, caused controversy in fat acceptance circles, and mixed reaction from the mainstream public. The gross-out humor is alive and well in this movie.
Many fat people who attended the earlier Nutty Professor movie felt personally ridiculed by the audiences laughter at the way the 400-pound hero did not fit into chairs, exercise equipment, clothing, etc. I had a different reaction. True, seeing Sherman not fitting into chairs and splitting clothing did not make me laugh, but I loved the fact that Sherman Klump was so endearing. I have seen almost the identical fat jokes made with disgust and ridicule behind them. The caricatures in many fat-hating movies—you can't call them characters—are de-humanized and simply used as target practice.
In both Nutty Professor films, Sherman demonstrates such dignity and stoic good humor in coping with the pain and humiliation of living supersized in an intolerant world that it is easy to see why he sparks affection in the lovely heroines Jada Pinkett in Nutty I and Janet Jackson in Nutty II. It is also worth noting that Janet Jackson's character also sees the goodness in Sherman's rowdy fat family and seems ecstatic at the idea of marrying Sherman.
I realize that the ultimate message of both Murphy's Nutty Professor movies—"be yourself and be loved" is a cliché. But after such a bone-wearying wagonload of "shape up before you get to have a real life" films, it was a genuine breath of fresh air to hear the underlying plot conclusion of the first Nutty Professor film, wherein Sherman won the girl's affection by being himself, and the second film where he learned to trust both himself and his fiancée's love for him.
In The Klumps, Sherman is dealing with fallout from his invention of and experiment with a miracle weight loss serum that gave birth to his thin alter ego—the odious Buddy Love. Crude and loud-mouthed, Buddy still lives in Sherman's very DNA and is trying to surface and take over his life—which gives the courtly and mild-mannered professor occasional fits of outrageous public behavior.
As Sherman begins to cope, he seriously tells his assistant that he has learned to accept who he is and what he is, being fat and now possibly being lonely. Of course, part of the humanizing of Sherman Klump was accomplished by placing him in the heart of a supportive family—with Murphy playing the entire family.
Contrary to The New Yorker essay I saw revelation rather than self-hatred in Murphy's portrait of a fat family. Revelation that families by their very nature are unpolished, uncensored, frequently unphotogenic, and yet at their best, they are there for us during our worst moments of crisis as no one else is.
Clearly, Murphy put some study into portraying the Klumps—voice, movement and gesture. For that alone, he deserves applause. Looking carefully at fat people is rarely done in this culture. I can't remember any mainstream movie where so many characters were super-sized. Each of the family members is a separate and believable character with different body language, voice and speech patterns.
In an online article by Fiona Ng, at hollywood.com, Aug. 2, 2000: "What's so funny about Fat?" she quotes, Debra Perkins, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) as saying that Murphy was portraying "gross characterizations of fat people."
"Not only are these characters much, much bigger in size than people see in their day-to-day life," she says, "but they're put into really embarrassing and humiliating situations. Of course people will laugh."
I have to respectfully disagree with Debra Perkins on this. First, I don't feel that Murphy's film creates an Island of the Humiliated Fat People atmosphere. The Klump family has a rock solid vitality under its fat. There is plausibility that people of a certain genetic stock will mostly be of a certain size.
Some of the Klumps may be loud (not all, Mama Klump is very sweet and soft-spoken), some may be crude and occasionally lewd, but they are never raked over the coals as being pathetic due to their size. They are clearly regular and enthusiastic customers at the "All You Can Eat" buffet, but even when they trash the place in the course of a catastrophic Heimlich maneuver, management doesn't ban them from the place.
As a rule, the use of "fat suits" on thin actors irritates me (and I promise I will have a few choice things to say on that subject in another column), but obviously, Eddie Murphy's comic genius is the hook that the entire concept of both Nutty Professor picture are hung on. They would not exist without his ability to play such a great number of roles believably. So the fat suits are as essential to the Nutty Professor films as the dinosaurs' teeth in Jurassic Park.
Whether the giant horny hamster was essential is unknowable, but I laughed at that.
In comedy, laughter is the ultimate answer. You either laugh or you don't. The humor in The Klumps may be too gross for some (some of it was too gross for me) but anything that makes me laugh as much as this picture made me laugh succeeds as a comedy in my view.
In the Fiona Ng article mentioned earlier, she quotes Chris Crandall, a professor at the University of Kansas. Crandall says the "fun" in films such as The Klumps comes from flirting with the general public's fear of people outside the so-called "norm." And, while it's become unacceptable to ridicule gays, the handicapped and minorities, Crandall laments that fat people are still fair game.
"People are motivated to punish or ostracize people who are different. Fat people are different, and they're different in an undesirable way. ... You can laugh at a fat guy, 'cause there's a rule that says you can laugh at people who brought it on to themselves," Crandall says, although he concedes the tremendous skill, particularly at physical comedy that goes into this kind of characterization.
I would argue that some jokes that originally had no "fat content" have been humanized and even improved by adding some in The Klumps. A case in point is the evolution of the hot tub joke—which was hyped in previews for the film. This particular joke appeared in an earlier incarnation in Murphy's Coming To America, where Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall each played several roles. The joke was that the mythical handmaidens in the mythical African country where Murphy was a prince, bathed and orally serviced the royal males daily in the bath.
The joke probably stuck in my mind because I'm a devout non-swimmer and to me it sounded like Esther Williams' worst nightmare. I asked a friend who qualifies as an expert in these matters, if this is even physically possible. I was assured that it is possible, although hardly state of the art in that it would be most rewarding to the male who was, to coin a phrase, quickest on the trigger, which is not usually thought of as a consummation devoutly to be wished. In other words, it's one of those male myths that has a great deal to do with fantasy and not so much with reality.
Leaving aside the act—let's look at the joke.
For some reason this joke is one that Murphy or his writers decided to resurrect. Speaking as an incorrigible joke-teller I know how that is. Humorists turn aggression into laughter just as oysters turn grit into pearls. Sometimes, due to neurosis, sadomasochism or pure cussedness, you just have to keep telling a joke till someone gets it. Or you keep putting more layers on the pearl until maybe you find a way to make it as funny to others as it has been all along to you.
In this case the joke is literally brought home. Rather than being the fantasy of two pampered young men, in The Klumps, this joke becomes the fantasy of Granny Klump—an elderly, randy and extremely determined woman with removable teeth. Granny fantasizes using this method of taking her pleasure from Buddy Love. Buddy proves more reluctant when she corners him in the garage than he was in imaginary hot tub.
Some may call this ageist. Hell, I would call the conclusion ageist when Buddy loses his lunch in the shrubbery after kissing Granny. But the joke has traveled quite a distance from a snicker that alienates most of the women in the audience, to a laugh that might, at least during the moment of fantasy, include women, fat women, even older women.
Even if Murphy's humor is not your cup of tea, I would like to suggest that seeing so many positive, large characters inhabiting the same film is a subtly radical experience. Those who have been to a NAAFA event might have had the experience of entering a kind of alternate universe where fat is fine and everyone is accepted.
At last August's NAAFA convention in San Diego, I had only been there for two days when, on Sunday evening I arrived at the room where the final dance was held to find that the room across the lobby was crowded with very thin people.
My first thought was, "What is wrong with those people?"
It actually took a moment to grasp what it was. They just looked wrong. It turned out to be a high school reunion. The attendees were mostly Asian, which meant that beginning with a more-than-usually thin population. Add to that the diet-before-the-reunion factor, and the fact that many who have gained weight since graduation skip reunions and you get a group of unusually slender people. After just a few days of seeing mostly large people at the NAAFA Convention, those thin people looked truly weird to me.
Our culture has a bad case of the opposite kind of myopia.
The mind and the eye do adjust to whatever reality is presented, when given a chance.
We just don't see enough fat people on screen to get used to them. Because of the entertainment business' hysteria over body size, it's an unusual film that has even one major fat character. That character might be the hero or heroine's fat sidekick, a comic relief character, a greedy villain or possibly a colorful and lonely eccentric, pitied and despised by the so-called normal-sized characters, obsessed with diets, food and an unrewarding love life.
There is an element of healing in a film that shows us fat people as heroes, loving and working, getting laid off and coping, enjoying themselves in hot tubs, and generally confronting problems with gusto—as so many fat people do in real life.
I have to close with one image from the film that I found particularly charming, because it triggered a memory of a time when the power of acceptance in my own life led to totally forgetting physical differences.
In The Klumps, Sherman's fiancée tries on his mother's wedding dress and practically disappears in it. I remember once lending a very petite friend my sweater (low body fat can lead to extreme chills sometimes). We were both surprised to find that when she put it on, she nearly disappeared in it. It wasn't until she tried it on that either of us had remembered how much larger my clothing was than hers. As long as there is no blame, such a situation it can be funny without being hurtful. In my friend's case, I didn't criticize her for being cold all the time, and she didn't criticize me for wearing double-digit fashions. Of course, if she had criticized me, I might have taken back the sweater and she would have been literally out in the cold.
© Lynne Murray