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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2009

Murphy's mulligan

No, it's not another Eddie Murphy disaster - just a pleasant, but forgettable, family comedy

Imagine That
Paramount Pictures
Director: Karey Kirkpatrick
Screenplay: Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, DeRay Davis, Ronny Cox and Martin Sheen
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Opened June 12, 2009
(out of four)

It's easy to be snarky about Eddie Murphy's career trajectory. Now, however, is not the time. Imagine That will soon be a forgotten movie, a financial bomb and another sign of his dwindling relevance. But it will, or at least should, be spared the barbs so commonly levied on the likes of Pluto Nash and Norbit.

Imagine That is far too harmless for all that. This is the kind of movie that would be easy to forgive if Murphy were still in his prime. But since he started to veer toward becoming a punchline himself these last few years, a movie like this falls victim to an inherent confirmation bias. But it's not all bad. It's an earnest attempt at the old "corporate family man has to get his priorities in order" prototype - it's schmaltzy without getting disgusting and it goes down easy.

Matter of fact, Murphy is actually good in it - or at least as good as the material allows him to be. And that's the problem with Imagine That. For all its good intentions and talented cast members, scene after scene falls flat. The jokes are stale; the comic sequences never get off the ground. It's all pretty benign, really - its mild charms overshadowed by a lack of any real inspiration.

Murphy plays a high-ranking financial executive whose career begins to crumble until he discovers that his daughter's security blanket - or "goo-gah" - offers him a competitive advantage of sorts. In that the princesses living inside of it have privileged information about multinational corporations.

It's perfect timing for Evan (Murphy), who is up for the CEO position at his company. The blanket works like gangbusters - but that's a bittersweet consolation to 6-year-old Olivia (Yara Shahidi), who is finally getting to know her dad, but for all the wrong reasons. Needless to say, it's only a matter of time before ol' Evan's heart gets warmed.

On the business end of things, Evan's path to the top of the corporate world is blocked only by his arch nemesis, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), the office hotshot who uses an unorthodox pseudo-American Indian persona to bring in new business. Haden Church has as much fun as can be had with a villainous role that's ultimately short on ideas - and at the very least, he makes for a much more menacing villain than John Travolta in last week's other release, the insufferable The Taking of Pelham 123.

But now we're getting off-topic.

Director Karey Kirkpatrick opts not to visualize the fantasy world that Olivia seems to experience underneath her blanket, allowing us to focus on the actors and let their performances bring things to life on their own.

The strategy works - thanks in large part to the chemistry between Evan and Olivia as their father-daughter relationship blossoms. In her feature-film debut, the electrically charismatic Shahidi pulls her weight with Murphy.

Imagine That is a movie we kind of want to like because it's sweet and cuddly and even charming in fits and starts - despite the fact that its "all you need is love" ethos is hammered down by a cavalcade of banal Beatles covers. (Considering the title of the movie, you might expect some Patsy Cline, but alas . . .)

Ultimately, the film is merely pedestrian - but in a way, that's almost a victory for Murphy. What's interesting is that he has now starred in two consecutive movies that were under-advertised by the distributor and hardly noticed by audiences - last year's Meet Dave and now this. Aside from his Shrek cash cow, his box-office clout has been waning for some time, possibly even more than we realize. But you never know - with a fourth Beverly Hills Cop movie and a Richard Pryor biopic both on the horizon, maybe there's a glimmer of hope for some sort of renaissance for Murphy. Imagine that.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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