Review: The Nutty Professor (1996)

The Nutty Professor

Rating

Director

Tom Shadyac

Screenplay

David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, Tom Shadyac, Steve Oedenkerk (1963 Screenplay: Jerry Lewis, Bill Richmond)

Length

95 min.

Starring

Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett Smith, James Coburn, Larry Miller, Dave Chappelle, John Ales

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for crude humor and sexual references

Buy on DVD/Blu-ray

Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

Hollywood frequently turns a blind eye towards issues of weight and the tolerance of those individuals who struggle to control it. The Nutty Professor unintentionally becomes the exemplification of those problems.

Eddie Murphy plays Sherman Klump, a mild-mannered scientist and college professor who’s been experimenting with a type of drug that could intercept the genes that cause people to gain excessive weight and thereby revolutionize the industry of weight loss. Ashamed of his own body image, Klump decides to use the formula to try and impress the beautiful new teacher at the school (Jada Pinkett Smith), but the side effects of the tincture become too dangerous to control.

Based on the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, The Nutty Professor changes many of the details, turning this from a story about a nerdy scientist wanting to become more socially viable into a film about an overweight professor trying to lose some weight. The ideas aren’t completely dissimilar, so the update doesn’t fail on those merits alone.

Quite similar to the well-known literary masterpiece Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Eddie Murphy takes the role on with great fervor, playing up the grim determination and mild-mannered self-consciousness of the woe begotten Sherman Klump; and simultaneously turning out the charm and self-centered stand-up routine he had become known for throughout his stand-up and early film career as Buddy Love.

Buddy is an outlandish, unabashed womanizer who treats Smith’s Stella Purdy as an object to be consumed while taking time to engage in carnal pleasures with other women. While he is presented as an egomaniacal ass and we’re given to loving the meek Klump instead, the film doesn’t put enough effort into pushing aside the spectacle in favor of a measured approach to self-acceptance.

This is exemplified in an early scene, the only one that played with any genuine emotional resonance. In it, Klump and Stella attend a comedy routine wherein an insulting comic takes aim at Prof. Clump’s weight, bringing down the house, but embarrassing and hurting him and his date (Smith). At that point, it could have jumped off and become a film that honestly, while humorously, tackled the issue of body image, insensitivity and self-consciousness. However, after that scene’s initial impact, the film quickly takes off in a zany, madcap way that almost entirely disavows itself of being any manner of important. It does return to that comic for a colossal slap-down, but by that point, the impact has been lost.

Murphy who is at his best when playing the meek professor, is given ample opportunity to stretch. Apart from the less interesting and capable approach he takes to Buddy Love, he does some brilliant work in five different roles as other members of the Klump family sitting at the table for dinner. Apart from the scenes not fitting into the framework of the film, it’s where the film is funniest and makes it hardly surprising that they inspired the sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

There was a potentially poignant polemic on the treatment of overweight people in The Nutty Professor, but it was unfortunately subsumed by the zany antics of Eddie Murphy mugging for the camera. It’s a movie that had too much potential that shouldn’t have been wasted on slight, rote simplifications of the subject matter. In Hollywood, superficiality is important, for only in avoiding depth and dignity can they churn large profits. This was as true when this film was released as it is today. This film could have signaled a change for the industry, but it was little more than the same old tired thing.

Review Written

October 6, 2015

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