Imagine That (United States, 2009)

June 11, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Imagine That Poster

Watching Imagine That, I was beset by a feeling of intense depression. Is this what Eddie Murphy has become? Once moviedom's most high-octane comedian, a combustible mixture of raunchy, non-holds-barred verbal repartee and kinetic physical mayhem, Murphy has now become a sad parody of his former self. These days, his comedic set list includes juvenile gross-out material (with mismatched condiments standing in for bodily functions this time around), mugging for the camera, and lame pratfalls. He has devolved below the least common denominator, targeting his material for the six-year olds who have become the strongest cornerstone of his fan base. I laughed once during Imagine That's interminable 107 minutes, and the longer I watched Murphy's desperate, embarrassing attempts at provoking laughter, the worse I felt. Granted, the actor's recent resume offers little reason for optimism but it took Imagine That to convince me that the man who dazzled in Trading Places and 48 Hours will never again grace the screen. I feel like I'm writing an obituary.

If the failure of the comedy isn't reason enough to avoid the movie, its dramatic missteps are even more unforgiveable. The movie's central relationship is between a workaholic father and his poor, neglected daughter. The filmmakers pull out all the stops making their interaction stomach churningly mawkish. If there's a manipulative tool eschewed by director Karey Kirkpatrick, I don't know what it is. There's also a sense that Imagine That wants to have its cake, eat it, and regurgitate it for second-hand consumption. Talk about mixed messages. Are we supposed to be rooting for this narcissistic jerk to find redemption with his daughter? Suddenly, everything turns out okay because he makes a dramatic last-minute entrance? What kind of twisted moral is Imagine That embracing regarding parenting? This is the kind of thing one expects to see in deep, dark satires, not in family-oriented dramedies. The movie believes that because the girl is over-the-top cute, we'll cheer the happy ending. But happy endings have to be earned, and this one is not. It's dishonest and repugnant.

Evan Danielson (Murphy) is a financial analyst at a Denver investment firm that is about to undergo a major restructuring. Longtime CEO Tom Stevens (Ronny Cox) is selling the company to a Donald Trump figure, Dante D'Enzo (Martin Sheen), who intends to fold the new acquisition into his empire. He initiates an Apprentice challenge to Evan and his biggest in-house competitor, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church). Whoever impresses him the most will get a top position in the conglomeration. Evan's situation is complicated by the presence of his seven-year old daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi), who is staying with him for the week while her mother (Nicole Ari Parker) is otherwise engaged. Desperate for her father's attention, Olivia dips into her make-believe world and consults a group of princesses about how certain stocks and corporations will fare. At first, Evan ignores her advice but, when the predictions start coming true, he re-evaluates the validity of her imaginary friends. Although he can't see them, he starts to play along, and soon becomes obsessed with spending time with his daughter not because of who she is but because of what she can do for his career.

The title implies that the movie explores the realm of fairy tales and childlike creativity, but that belief is as delusional as the one that Imagine That is anything other than pandering tedium. Those wanting to see a genuinely creative exploration of make-believe can cross A Bridge to Terabithia, which accomplishes the difficult task of cinematically embodying the elusive magic of a child's imagination. Even Adam Sandler's mediocre Bedtime Stories does it better, as hard as that may be to visualize. In Imagine That, it's reduced to Murphy running around his home after his daughter and dancing in front of a crowd of mocking bystanders as he tries to attract the attention of one of the princesses. (Or is it the queen?) Since we never see any part of Olivia's world (budgetary constraints?), we're forced to imagine it, and the film doesn't come close to getting us to the point where we're able to clear that hurdle.

While Murphy's recent resume (excepting Dreamgirls) might lead to low expectations for his cinematic endeavors, the involvement of director Kary Kirkpatrick could have been a cause for limited optimism. Kirkpatrick's resume is solid. His only previous directorial outing was Over the Hedge, an amusing animated effort, but he has written a number of noteworthy screenplays, including those for The Spiderwick Chronicles and Chicken Run. Perhaps the problem with Imagine That is that he wasn't involved in the writing. Whatever the case, this is as disappointing a live-action debut as one can envision.

Still, it's hard to consider Imagine That an unmitigated failure. It will probably entertain the most undiscriminating and uncritical portion of its target audience: young children, most of whom will sit through anything featuring live-action figures imitating cartoon characters. They'll love Eddie Murphy's trampoline encounter and his pancake meal. For parents absorbing the blow necessary to entertain their offspring, it will take more than an active imagination to make believe that Imagine That is anything more than two hours of torture.

Imagine That (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-12
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1