Despite numerous big screen fiascos during his career, Eddie Murphy yet again found himself at the right end of the box office charts of late with the release of 'Norbit' and 'Dreamgirls'. Both films did big business in the US and Murphy won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 'Dreamgirls'.

But while 'Dreamgirls' was held up as a return to form for Murphy, 'Norbit' has been cited as yet another example of how far his comedy star has fallen, relying, as it does, on a jaded routine of playing numerous characters, crudity and racial stereotypes galore. If you find yourself offended already, there's plenty more in store.

Abandoned by his mother as a child, the meek Norbit (Murphy) was raised by Mr Wong (Murphy) at his Chinese restaurant and orphanage. Norbit's early years were bliss, thanks to the presence of his sweetheart Kate (Newton). But once Kate finds a new family Norbit is commandeered by Rasputia (Murphy), a girl whose girth is in inverse proportion to the size of her heart.

Pushed into marrying Rasputia as an adult, Norbit finds himself at the mercy of his wife and her three degenerate brothers, who run a construction business - and the small town where he lives.

But just when it looks like Norbit only has the odd escape from his house to look forward to, Kate re-enters his life with plans to take over the orphanage from Mr Wong. Trouble is there's a boyfriend (Gooding Jr) to contend with for her affections and an evil plan of Rasputia's brothers to thwart before true love can find a way.

'Norbit' left most US critics outraged, nauseous and closer to believing that cinematic Armageddon was nigh - rumours even circulated that it cost Murphy the Oscar for 'Dreamgirls'. Quite what they expected from Murphy's comedy at this stage is a mystery: while a must see for the humour sensitive or politically correct it isn't, the fact remains that 'Norbit' did - and will - find an audience.

What some will find most dispiriting about all the shenanigans here is that underneath the fat suit and cheap shots this film had potential. Having created a likeable central character, Murphy and his co-writers fail to make the most imaginative use of him and instead rely on clichéd gags when a sweeter and funnier film with a message of tolerance wouldn't have taken too much brainpower.

There have been even worse comedies from other stars in the last decade, but if you've seen Murphy in 'The Haunted Mansion', you'll know how faint that praise is.

Harry Guerin