Everyone knows that Hollywood operates on the principle of safety. Studios and distributors always look for the can’t-miss product that will hit the coveted demographic and rake in some serious revenue because making movies is expensive, even when they stink.
Some of the safest bets are sub-genres of comedy: the romantic comedy, the gross-out comedy and the family comedy. Making these films never seems to unduly tax anyone’s creativity, plus many are successful, at least financially.
The family comedy has become the place for stars to do penance for unsuccessful films. Vin Diesel, for example, starred in the kiddie comedy “The Pacifier” after appearing in the low-grossing dud “A Man Apart” and the mega-disaster “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, redeemed himself after a series of under-performing movies by appearing as a reluctant dad in “The Game Plan.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a family-friendly comedy; there are many good examples, although it’s hard to think of a recent one not made by Pixar.
Eddie Murphy periodically does time in the family comedy. In a career dotted with as many misfires as successes, it seems natural that Murphy would sometimes need to do the safe thing to restore faith in his bankability. Lately, however, he does the safe thing almost reflexively - he followed an Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls” with the lowbrow comedy “Norbit,” another “Shrek” film and the generally inoffensive, utterly forgettable “Meet Dave.”
“Meet Dave” is a science-fiction comedy so sloppily made it’s as if the most of the original footage was lost and what remained was hastily pieced together with Scotch tape.
Some tiny human-looking aliens from another world want to drain Earth of its salt, which they use as a power source. They arrive in a spaceship/robot that looks just like Eddie Murphy dressed in a three-piece white suit (the aliens’ image of a typical earthling was Ricardo Montalban as Mr. Rourke on “Fantasy Island”). Even though they look and sound like humans and even speak English, they’re completely perplexed by these giants who are exactly like them, only bigger. Mysteriously they don’t understand human facial expressions, so for much of the movie Spaceship Dave walks around with a bug-eyed stare that would surely creep out anyone close enough to see it. Naturally this is also an excuse for Murphy to imitate all the dorky white people around him, which at times is actually very funny.
The ship is led by a mini Murphy known as the Captain, who eventually falls in love with an underling called Number Three (Gabrielle Union). Outside, a boy named Josh takes a shine to Spaceship Dave, who apparently represents the semi-catatonic father figure he’s always dreamed of. Spaceship Dave winds up in Josh’s home when his mother accidentally runs over the machine as it crosses the street. It turns out that, in a city of more than 8 million people, Josh happened to be the one who found a probe sent months earlier by the aliens.
Spaceship Dave soon spends all its time hanging out with Josh and his mom (Elizabeth Banks), who may have romantic feelings for this bizarre creature that never blinks and drinks ketchup straight from the bottle. Inside Spaceship Dave, the captain finally lightens up and admits his feelings for Number Three as the tiny crew feels the inexplicable urge to party just because they’re on Earth.
A mutiny breaks out aboard the ship and is just as quickly quelled, the captain falls in love and everything eventually turns out all right because the captain watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” and realized humans are more than dumb, giant brutes. It seems just as likely that “It’s a Wonderful Life” would have the opposite effect, leading the captain to think the Earth is populated by saccharine phonies who must be wiped out to prevent them from inflicting false cheer on the rest of the universe.
There’s no denying Murphy is a talented guy, and at this point he’s successful enough to do whatever he wants. So why “Meet Dave”? Multimillionaire Murphy can get out of PG prison any time he wants because, after all, rich guys almost always walk.
Rated PG for poo jokes and choppy editing that creates a disturbing sense of temporal dislocation.
Two stars. Horrible.
The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic
The Movie Masochist is an emotionally wounded cinephile who lives in the United States. He watches bad movies so you don’t have to. Discuss movies, argue with or simply flatter him at jfranklin AT mcclatchy.com.