Eddie Murphy finds his inner Cosby in Imagine That, a comedy that is long on Cosby-like, kid-friendly charm even if it falls short in the funny department. He keeps the mugging to a minimum and smartly allows the moppet (Yara Shahidi) playing his daughter to steal scene after scene of this tale of a father-daughter relationship in need of fixing.
Murphy plays Evan, a workaholic dad who has lost his marriage (Nicole Ari Parker plays the wife) by putting his job first. He so ignores their daughter Olivia that the ex wonders whether he ever wanted kids in the first place. He did, he assures her. "I just didn't know I'd be so bad at it," he says.
That line and the way Murphy plays it — with conviction and disappointment — sets the tone for Imagine That.
Evan is a stock analyst fighting for his career against a rival named Johnny Whitefeather, a Native American who isn't above playing up the wise-Indian shtick, talking of the "one sky" above us all, listening to "the dream sparrow" so he can "rain down prosperity. And how." Whitefeather is played with stereotypical glee by Thomas Haden Church, far and away the funniest thing in the movie.
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When Evan is forced to take care of his sullen 7-year-old for a week, he sees the damage the divorce has done. Not right away, of course. She's withdrawn at school, hiding under her "goo ga" (security blanket), communing with imaginary princesses and dodging imaginary dragons. It's only when she interjects at his workplace, calling his company "crybabies" and other firms "kissing" (signifying a merger) that Evan gets curious about her world and tries to find a way into it.
There's real warmth to the father-daughter scenes, a cute narration that shows a child's view of Daddy's job. Director Karey Kirkpatrick wisely chose not to visualize the imaginary world and those who live in it, but Murphy gets to do little dances and sing little songs to appease his daughter's princesses. He has a lovely scene trying to teach the child to sing All You Need Is Love.
But sweet as all that is, the money moments are the war between the posing Native American mystic and Evan, who begins using childish metaphors to make his competing stock pitches to clients. Church gets the better of these exchanges because he has a much funnier character to play — howling like a coyote, labeling co-workers "Brother Crow," pumping his son full of Red Bull in an attempt to make him a "child seer" like Evan's kid.
By comparison, Murphy's goofy, bug-eyed hysterics seem played out and overly familiar. Evan is a guy who sits too deeply in Murphy's comfort zone to be surprising or funny.
The kid is a wonder, and the heart is here, characters given lovely story arcs, with a stellar supporting cast (Ronny Cox, Martin Sheen, Bruce McGill, Mel Harris) that plays the reality of moments instead of reaching for broad laughs.
But when you're making a family comedy, players need to go for those laughs, especially the star. His inner Cosby should have told Eddie that.