Thursday, March 14, 2019

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Nutty Professor (1996)

Once upon a time I saw the film The Nutty Professor at a friend's house and got into trouble, since I wasn't allowed to see it in theaters when it came out. I would've probably been in early middle school at the time. Not that long afterward I was on a trip to Disney World with my little brother and Myopia podcast host Nic, whose little brother was on the same traveling baseball team, and this movie was the bus ride entertainment. This would've probably been in the 1997-98 range. I haven't seen the film since, but Myopia being what it is, the time soon came to see if the film held up.

So did it? Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) is a good-natured but clumsy and morbidly obese genetics professor working under Dean Richmond (Larry Miller), who for some reason blames him for the college losing funding. Just after the film begins, graduate student Carla Purdy (Jada Pinkett-Smith) comes to teach at the school and Klump is infatuated. Shrugging off his enabling family (for the most part also played by Eddie Murphy), he begins trying to lose weight to impress Purdy, but it's not progressing fast enough. He decides to experiment on himself with a fat-reducing formula, spawning a lecherous and (literally) testosterone-addled alter ego Buddy Love (also played by Eddie Murphy) who proceeds to wreak havoc.

The Good

*At the time I remember Eddie Murphy got a lot of attention for playing multiple characters at once, most of which involved extensive makeup and/or fat suits. He does a good job playing all the different characters and differentiating them--there's the No Filter sex-crazed grandmother, the healthier and more fitness-focused brother who encourages Sherman to exercise, and Sherman's squabbling parents. There's Sherman himself, who's jovial and clumsy but has a melancholic streak we see in his conversation with Jason (John Ales), his lab assistant. Murphy's also clearly having a lot of fun playing the loud and charismatic Buddy Love. I found the "ALL SPANDEX" scene hilarious back then and it's still funny now.

*Although I remember family members criticizing the film for mocking overweight African-Americans, the film's treatment of obesity is surprisingly balanced. Klump has an extraordinarily poor diet and doesn't exercise, but at the same time he and his family do seem to have stockier body types (this is specifically mentioned) and Klump himself seems to be an emotional eater using food to essentially medicate depression and low self-esteem. His poor eating habits seem to stem from his upbringing--as depicted in two dinner sequences with his family--and based on some of the dialogue, the way Sherman's father dresses and habitually carries a knife, and what they eat, it seems that the Klump family originally came from the country. There such a diet would be fine if you're burning 6,000 calories a day working on the farm but not if you have a more sedentary lifestyle. Look at the obesity rates in the South and Midwest, for example. And Sherman's father Cletus echoes the most dangerous parts of the so-called "fat acceptance movement" by claiming nothing is really wrong with them and they just happen to look different/have different body types rather than their atrocious diets, too much TV (after dinner Cletus sits down to watch Roseanne rather than go for walk), etc. Sherman's brother, although still heavier, is nowhere near as fat as the rest of them and he is specifically described as exercising.

*Furthermore, although exercising does improve Sherman's stamina and agility fairly quickly, he doesn't immediately slim down. This kind of thing takes a lot more work, as well as diet changes Sherman doesn't immediately make. And the film makes it clear that shortcuts can be dangerous. Although spawning a destructive split personality clearly isn't going to happen, a former member of my writing group who's a nurse said she would never work in a weight loss clinic because (according to her) they basically give people legal speed to get rid of the pounds rapidly but don't teach them how to deal with the other issues that caused them to become fat in the first place--poor diet, low self-esteem, depression, etc. We see this with Buddy Love continuing Sherman's poor dietary habits, which would probably give him heart disease and other issues even if he didn't pack on the pounds.

*The film also deconstructs the "nice guy" archetype a bit. Although Sherman is a legitimately good-natured and nice person, years of mistreatment over his appearance and his own shyness and clumsiness have spawned a resentful streak that, combined with overdoses of testosterone, literally creates a monster. It doesn't take long at all for Buddy Love to become a completely different person than "Sherman Klump who's 300 pounds lighter." Although Buddy and Sherman seem to be split personalities, the film does make it clear there's overlap. And Sherman does show some minor signs of Buddy Love-ism himself, like showing up at Carla's home uninvited to ask her out and perhaps pursuing a relationship a bit too aggressively, especially since she's a junior colleague.

(Carla isn't one of Klump's students like the love interest in the original film, nor is she a direct subordinate, but just because it's not explicit sexual harassment doesn't mean it isn't something that could spawn all sorts of problems if not handled carefully.)

*Jada Pinkett-Smith does a good job playing Carla. She's intelligent and compassionate and recognizes the goodness in the unattractive Sherman, but at the same time she can be wowed by the charismatic and handsome Buddy Love even though he's really over-dramatic and obnoxious. And she won't put up with nonsense.

*Dave Chappelle, who plays the odious comedian Reggie, also does a good job. He's pretty funny, but at the same time his humor has a cruel streak and he's most definitely set up for a fall.

*There are some good visual gags, including the film opening with a campus gerbil apocalypse and various pratfalls involving Klump's clumsiness and weight. Klump's "fat nightmares" are also pretty funny. Some of the humor also serves the greater story--Buddy Love's behavior grows obnoxious even before the exact "scientific" reasoning behind it is revealed.

The Bad

*Dean Richmond claims Sherman has alienated all the donors, but how exactly did he do this? Sherman is clumsy both physically and socially, but he's too good-natured to get into political controversies, harass colleagues and students, etc. Does everybody just hate him because he's fat? That would make sense story-wise, but I'm having a hard time believing all of the college's donors would be assholes like that. Or have incidents like "the campus gerbil apocalypse" happened before? It's my understanding that in the original film Jerry Lewis's character has a history of causing explosive lab accidents, but we don't see anything even implying Klump has caused mishaps before.

*How does Buddy know how to drive so well? Sherman might be relatively well-paid for an academic if he's been there awhile or if he's made a lot of scientific discoveries, but I doubt he'd have access to the type of car he'd need to practice the mad driving skills he demonstrates in one scene.

*There's a bit of inconsistency with Carla's character--she hated Reggie for how he acted toward Sherman, yet she's enjoying fat jokes? Yes, people are often contradictory, but it kind of grated a bit.

The Verdict

A surprisingly deep, funny film. 8.5 out of 10.