imagine that

There was an Onion headline a few weeks ago that read, “New film only stars one Eddie Murphy.” Imagine That is that film, and it certainly benefits from the lone Eddie arrangement.

When I saw the wretched Meet Dave last summer, I poured a lot of shit all over the grave of the “funny Eddie Murphy.” That guy’s been gone for a long time, and anything I may have had to say about his new family friendly (and hacky) persona was like throwing a pebble into the Grand Canyon. And I’m sure dude could give a flying fuck as long as those Klumps residual checks keep piling in.

The thing is, and judging by box office receipts I’m not alone here, I don’t know how to quit this guy. Even in Meet Dave, which, it bears repeating, is a terrible, terrible movie, there’s still a little glimmer in Murphy’s eye of what used to be. It’s like some kind of sad clown shit; he’s almost got it in him, he just can’t bring himself to try.

Which brings me to Imagine That, which, solo Eddie notwithstanding, fits nicely into Murphy’s family comedy paradigm. Except it’s sweet, it never panders to its audience, and, dare I say, it’s actually a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Of course, Murphy still has a tendency to put an extra coat of shtick on all his jokes, and an extra coat of schmaltz on everything else (just like I use way too many Yiddish words for a gentile). But Imagine That is not meant to be high art, so a lot of this can be forgiven. Murphy for the first time in a long time plays the perfect tone for his target audience. The plot arc is pretty obvious, and Murphy fills in the blanks nicely.

Ah, to the plot. Murphy is a well-to-do stock trader who has never had much of a relationship with his young daughter. When he realizes the daughter’s security blanket empowers her to tell the future, Murphy uses it to make high value trades, bond with his daughter, and compete for a promotion against a shammy Native American mystic played by a hysterically deadpan Thomas Haden Church. But Murphy’s greed (oh no!) threatens to tear apart his newfound daddy-daughter relationship.

If this sounds at all like the plot of classic Simpsons episode “Lisa the Greek,” it is. And I already said that in a Twitter post when I saw the preview. And copycat fuck Scott Tobias said it in his A.V. Club review weeks later. I hate it when my pet theories are mirrored by people who actually have readers. Just so we’re square, Tobias, I was first.

But that’s…ok. I’m not looking to Imagine That for originality. Frankly, I’m just glad it didn’t have talking animals, or fat suits, or poop jokes in it. When you remove those obvious entertainment barriers, it’s much easier to see a film for what it is. I came out of the theater feeling better than I did when I went in. That’s saying something. If Eddie is working his way up to being funny again, this is a step in the right direction.

Film: Imagine That
Director: Karey Kirkpatrick
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, Martin Sheen

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 6
Rotten Tomatoes average: 43%

Next up: Year One

>> New film only stars one Eddie Murphy [The Onion]
>> Imagine That [A.V. Club]

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or human-shaped spaceships that shit hot dogs.

On a Monday afternoon, myself and a couple of teenagers entered the theater to see Meet Dave. I spent the duration of the film lamenting the fate of late period Eddie Murphy; the teens spent the time drinking clandestine beers in the dark. I’d say they had the better end of the deal.

Ever since The Nutty Professor remake, Murphy has been on a downward spiral. I haven’t seen enough of his films over the past decade or so to say with absolute confidence that Meet Dave is the worst of the lot, but I can venture a pretty good guess. At any rate, Meet Dave hasn’t given me a reason to check out any of those other movies. Ever.

So what happened to the Eddie Murphy of Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, et al.? Has he tried too much to play to a family audience, becoming bland and inoffensive (and unfunny) in the process? Has he immersed himself into too many trite star vehicles, refusing to take any risks?

Of course, that much is true, but the real problem is more fundamental than that. Murphy has completely lost his sense of comedic timing. From his standup, through Saturday Night Live, to his early years as a major film star, Murphy was sharp as a tack. His reactions, and his knowing smirks, were delivered impeccably, his laugh lines were natural, solicitous even, making even the silliest jokes riotously funny. In Meet Dave, Murphy made me laugh exactly once, but that one joke was delivered so perfectly it left me wondering why he can’t pull off that trick more often.

Searching for the reason, though, is kind of futile. You never can tell where the talent goes. Other comedic actors, and Murphy contemporaries like Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd have lost the funny over the years, too, for whatever reason. Murphy, however, gets to keep making movies. The others don’t. And it’s not like any of Murphy’s non-Shrek films of late have been anything but colossal bombs. He keeps getting the chance, and keeps failing.

In Meet Dave, Murphy’s persona (or, rather, both of them, as he plays two parts, which is actually less than usual for him) is fundamentally annoying. He plays the captain of a spaceship from the planet Nil (which I think is supposed to be a joke, but I don’t get it), who speaks in a generic voice devoid of any emotion. The spaceship itself is designed in its captain’s image, and interacts (in Murphy’s voice) completely unnaturally, despite the fact that the humanoid miniatures who comprise its crew have verbal interactions that are recognizably human.

Unfortunately, Murphy drags a pretty good supporting cast down with him. Ed Helms plays Murphy’s first mate, and can’t play anything but annoyed throughout the whole film. Probably, Helms was frustrated himself that his agent signed him up for this movie. Elizabeth Banks, who’s hilarious when the script allows it, as in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, plays a major part here, yet still doesn’t have anything much to do. Judah Friedlander shows up and does a boring version of his signature goof character. Gabrielle Union, who’s beautiful and endearing but pretty one note, plays Murphy’s love interest and shows why she doesn’t have any crossover appeal outside of things like Eddie Murphy movies.

The Nillians (still don’t get the joke) have landed on earth to steal the world’s water supply to save their own planet. Yet they become so infatuated with Earthlings that they can’t bring themselves to do it. It’s a shame their civilization will have to die, though it at least guarantees there won’t be a Meet Dave 2.

Film: Meet Dave
Director: Brian Robbins
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Scott Caan, Ed Helms, Gabrielle Union, Mike O’Malley, Judah Friedlander

Viewing Situation: Weekday matinee, me, drunk teens; standard projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 21%
My Grade (Out of 10): 1

Next Up: Mamma Mia!