Review: Imagine That
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
It's tough to hate a fluffy family flick about a father who bonds with his button-cute kid, but “Imagine That,” Eddie Murphy's latest exercise in half-baked entertainment, certainly gives you enough reasons to want to torch the film in effigy. It's not offensive like, say, 2007's “Norbit” (the movie that arguably cost Murphy the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “Dreamgirls”), but its story is so meatless, its execution so misguided and its plot details so startlingly ridiculous that it becomes truly insufferable. Aside from the (very) occasional charms of Murphy's natural talents, there's practically no appeal to speak of. Is it funny? No. Is it endearing? Not really. Is it asinine? You betcha. Even if your mind is wide open, with ample space reserved for cutesy, kiddie fantasy, nothing can prepare you for the wack-a-doo absurdities that await in this film. Especially for parents, but for children, too, it is a strenuous waste of time, and the whole family would be better off sitting around telling imaginative tales of their own.
The core concept of “Imagine That” is noble, albeit nothing new: after some wild, life-changing events, a neglectful, workaholic dad finally learns what it means to be a good parent. Now, could screenwriters Ed Solomon (“Charlie's Angels”) and Chris Matheson (the “Bill & Ted” series) have come up with a more insipid-yet-insane way to tell this familiar story? “Imagine That” is like “Liar, Liar,” minus the fun and plus a lot of crazy. Get this: Evan Danielson (Murphy) is a successful financial advisor at a top Denver firm who's too busy crunching numbers and closing deals to spend time with his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia (newcomer Yara Shahidi). The first and only time he shows any interest in her at all is when he discovers that her imaginary friends have infallible stock advice. Using Olivia's blanket (a.k.a. “goo-gah”) as a tool with which to contact the imaginary fairy princesses (a.k.a. “Coupeda, Mapeda, Zapeda and Kwali” – not sure about the spelling there), Evan starts getting primo tips like, Company A “wets the bed” and Company B is “a crybaby.” Sell! Since Evan's insider info repeatedly proves to be rock solid, his colleagues dismiss all the nonsense (oh yes, “wet the bed” comes up in meetings) and he becomes a rising star. That's good news for him because he's one of two candidates up for the big boss's seat when an impending merger with a larger firm goes into effect (the other is Johnny Whitefeather, a zany, born-again-or-something Native American played by Thomas Haden Church in a bad wig). However, it's bad news for Olivia, who soon realizes her father cares less about her than he does about her “goo-gah.”
I've read a couple of critics' reviews that praise director Karey Kirkpatrick (“Over the Edge”) for keeping the imaginary friends imagined and not visualizing them in what could have become some hokey, glittery interpretation. In any other instance, I'd have to agree, as subtlety is something I greatly appreciate, even long for, at the movies. But here, perhaps if there were some fantastical visual flair, there would have at least been something for me to behold and admire. Instead, there are embarrassing, excruciating scenes in which Murphy wears a blanket on his head, talks to walls and dances and sings for magical dragons (one outdoor dance sequence is shamelessly, unforgivably condescending). Add to that Johnny Whitefeather's New Age-y speeches about “one sky” and “dream pigeons” (or something), and you've got what may well be the first family film since “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that was presumably conceived under the influence of hallucinogenics.
Murphy graciously turns his requisite, rubber-faced-diva schtick down a few decibels this time out, reminding the world that under all the antics, he's an accomplished, inherently skilled performer. It's slight, but it comes through. Meanwhile, Shahidi (who's bound to receive raves because she's cute and under 12), gives a performance that's adequate but nowhere near winning. Call me heartless, but there are too many just-okay child actors out there to deem every one the second coming of Shirley Temple (as many critics love to do). The work from both Murphy and Shahidi tends to contribute to, not diverge from, the unbearableness of the movie (even a well-intended father-daughter singing lesson becomes shrill and unwelcome). The only time the two really shine together – and the only time the film really comes to life – is during a pancake-making sequence that's featured in the film's trailers. It's well-scored and well-shot, but it works because it's simple, universal and entirely separate from all the other gobbledygook going on elsewhere in the movie. Sadly, it lasts about six minutes.
What ultimately kills “Imagine That” is this: it's not really for anyone. The kids may have patience for all the “goo-gah,” “Zapeda,” “dream pigeon” gibberish, but the finance talk, which pops up in equal measure, will either lose them or put them to sleep. As for adults, I can't imagine a single grown person enjoying this big 'ol mess. It's the kind of film in which you spend more time looking at your watch than at the screen. After 107 sanity-testing minutes, it ends as it must: with Evan taking the high road when faced with that age-old family-or-job decision. Before it gets there, though, a secondary character played by Martin Sheen serves Johnny Whitefeather with the film's best line of dialogue. It comes just after the nature nut delivers his final preposterous speech. Sheen's guy says: “What kind of excuse can you give us for that unctuous stream of drivel that you call a presentation?” I wrote it down verbatim. It's a question I'd like to ask the filmmakers.