2009, PG, 107 min. Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick. Starring Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Vanessa Williams, Nicole Ari Parker, Ronny Cox, Martin Sheen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 12, 2009
When did the relatively unterrifying actor Thomas Haden Church, best known for his roles in Sideways, Spider-Man 3, and TV’s Wings, morph into the completely nightmarish Tommy Wiseau, the Bizarro World, actor-writer-director hyphenate behind the disastrous cult movie The Room? Like Spidey's nemesis, the Sandman, Church has somehow rearranged his molecular structure to mimic that of Wiseau, right down to the feral ebony mane and the creepy, mesmeric gaze. It's a feat, all right, and a surprise (disturbing though it may be), but it's nothing when compared with the even more shocking revelation that Murphy has made a family-friendly, kid-centric film without a single fart joke. True, he does put his foot in a cow patty at one point – a sly homage to his critics, perhaps? – but Imagine That is remarkably and refreshingly free of Murphy's usual penchant for antic toilet humor and howling bad taste. It's a downright restrained performance from the once-upon-a-time comic genius who gave us the dark humor of Trading Places, the scathing stand-up of Raw, and the sweet-natured romance of Coming to America in what now feels like an entirely different career. Murphy is Evan Danielson, a Denver-based workaholic financial analyst so wrapped up in his hyper-competitive workload that he's become an archetype of the separated bad dad to his 7-year-old daughter, Olivia (the impossibly adorable Shahidi). While his ex (Parker) bemoans his nonexistent shared-parenting skills, lonely little Olivia has conjured a band of imaginary friends to offset her lack of a caring father figure. As it happens, her invisible pals and the blue blankie she uses to enter their realm have a decided knack for finance, and pretty soon dad and daughter are bonding over magic kingdoms and stock portfolios, although Evan views this improbability more as a means to advance his career rather than his relationship with his daughter. You can probably guess, very early on, how all this is going to end up, especially if you're familiar with the Weitz brothers' infinitely more subtle film, About a Boy. However, Imagine That is an innocuous, at times charming and frequently sweet, family film with engaging performances, a straightforward moral for parents everywhere, and enough genuine giggles to keep both parents and their young charges amused. The script, interestingly, is co-written by Chris Matheson, son of legendary fantasist Richard Matheson (who scripted, among other things, many of the classic, Rod Serling-era Twilight Zone episodes and the recently readapted zombie classic I Am Legend). There are no zombies whatsoever to be found in Murphy's newest (although there is that Church/Wiseau weirdness), and, all in all, Imagine That is an amiable detour from its star's usual scatological skronk. Kids will empathize, parents will breathe a sigh of relief, and curmudgeonly, film critics everywhere will be, I imagine, much relieved at not having to thumb through their thesauri seeking yet another synonym for “gaseous.”