Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review: "Imagine That"

It's hard to even remember now when Eddie Murphy was the most cutting-edge comedian on the planet. In his stand-up bits and early film roles, he pulled out daring riffs that brazenly touched the third rails of race, gender and social divisions, and paved the way for guys like Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle.

I don't mind that Murphy has morphed into the king of family comedies. He's nearly 50 now -- though he barely looks different from his "48 Hours" days -- and even the hippest prankster must give way to daddy roles. But sometimes, as in his new film "Imagine That," it frankly seems like he's not trying very hard.

"Imagine" is the sort of film that's aimed squarely at children, but will leave most children bored for long stretches. As for the parents, they'll appreciate some of the tender moments where Murphy, playing a bad dad who works all the time, learns to bond with his daughter and live life a little.

But that probably leaves 80 of the movie's 105 minutes that don't seem to be made for anyone.

The movie's saving grace is Yara Shahidi, who plays Murphy's daughter, Olivia. She's cute as can be, of course, but also manages to project some pretty complex emotions for a tyke.

Olivia's problem is that she's living in a fantasy world, and doesn't want to come out. With the aid of a special blanket called a Goo-ga, she communicates with a trio of princesses and a queen. This causes big problems at school, and between daughter and father. It doesn't help that Evan (Murphy) is a financial investor who lives, breathes and eats his work.

When his ex-wife Trish (Nicole Ari Parker) asks him why he even agreed to become a parent, he mumbles that "I didn't think I'd be so bad at it."

Lo and behold, it turns out the Goo-ga really does have magical powers, and can help Evan pick the right companies to invest in. He needs the help, because his workplace rival is Danny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), an American Indian who works some hokum about "dream sparrows" and mystic waterfalls into his pitches, and wows the clients.

So soon Evan is doing things like dancing in public and singing ridiculous songs to appease some invisible fairies with names like Sapata and Kupata, and delighting his daughter in the process.

Little kids will likely giggle at the notion of a grown-up acting the fool, but often these scenes devolve into moments that are just plain uncomfortable -- such as when Evan sneaks into a neighbor's house where Olivia is at a sleep-over so he can steal the Goo-ga for a big presentation he has the next morning.

It's hard to imagine that we used to look forward to a new Eddie Murphy movie, instead of wondering if it'll be tolerable. "Imagine That" manages to meet our shrunken expectations.

2 stars

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