In Denver, investment consultant Evan (Eddie Murphy) services the rich and famous. You know this because he spends a minute of screen time in Imagine That on the Nuggets’ own court, where, presumably, he can convene with the city’s only other rich black men. Smiling and striding in a mobile frame, Evan is all slick arrogance, blithely unaware of how out of place he is and how out of date the scene is: his advisees are Melo and AI.
The rest of the film is rather like this, full of lame jokes and unclever allusions. The frame has Evan trying to reconnect with his precocious daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). These efforts are hardly focused—until he learns that Olivia has something to offer, namely, buy-and-sell advice via her imaginary friends, three princesses who have an uncanny insight into the vagaries of markets. Let’s just say that, as the magical center of a movie for kids, these princesses are less than compelling.
It probably doesn’t help that they remain unseen, only hinted at in Olivia’s lovely face, which displays a limited range of emotions. This makes the problems they embody entirely her father’s, and indeed, he is Imagine That‘s emotional focus. Why anyone imagines children want to see his struggle may be the first question posed by the movie, but it’s hardly the last. You might also be wondering why Eddie Murphy signed on for yet another graceless family pic (possible answers: he wears nice suits and, in one brief workout scene, he shows the pecs he’s plainly spent time perfecting). Or you could ask just what Martin Sheen had in mind when he agreed to walk through the role of great white daddy, the gigantic client that Evan must win in order to get the big promotion and so, confirm his own skills as an investment analyst and oh yes, keep his child in the designer clothing to which she’s apparently accustomed.
Sheen’s brief appearance does occasion an irrelevant and heavy-handed political point regarding Evan’s rival, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church). Throughout the film, the boys go at it, competing over accounts and the attention of their boss, Tom (Ronny Cox, who mostly looks about as bored as you may feel). Their contest—increasingly hysterical and monotonous—comprises a big dis of all the experts on market fluctuations. If such sentiment is popular these days, it’s concentrated here through Whitefeather’s unseemly gyrations, ugly makeup, and insistent Native American mysticism. He leads his clients—and his colleagues, eyes rolling as they sit on their hands at the boardroom table—on spiritual journeys to make money.
Apparently the clients are eager to be treated like children, because they fall in line, impressed by the chanting about herds and mountains and the “one sky” that overlooks us all, not to mention the snide allusion to “the white fire grid people call the internet.” Silly as they are, the clients are relentlessly rich, which inspires Johnny and Evan to fall all over themselves, quite literally, in order to win their trust. When he finds Olivia has drawn and sparkle-glued all over his notes for a crucial meeting, Evan melts down in front of a room full of suits, spewing the imaginary predictions. As these are disguised in “princess talk” (like, two companies will be “married” and another will have its pants pulled down to expose poop in its pants), he doesn’t understand quite what he’s saying. He does understand, however, when Tom is impressed by his seeming brilliance: “How did you know?” the boss asks, cautioning his new star player against “insider trading” before sending him forth to win a pile of new accounts.
Yes, Evan loses his soul in his pursuit of money, and no, his cavorting for Olivia—pretending to see dragons and genuflecting before the oh-so-demanding princesses—is not adorable. Johnny’s efforts to copy Evan’s antics mark his wickedness (he gets his young son out of bed with doses of Red Bull), and Evan’s ex-wife Trish (Nicole Ari Parker) provides the occasional ineffectual scowl. Still, Evan rolls on, determined to abuse his child’s trust and act the fool in order to get himself to the absurdly knotted-up place where he has no choice but to submit to the plot he’s signed on for—that is, to become a good parent in spite of himself. It can’t be a surprise that this impresses everyone in the business sphere as well. Except for Johnny, of course, who is not only a bad dad with a bad wig and inclination to cheat, but also a fake Native American. Oh, the humanity.