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Dustin Putman

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Imagine That  (2009)
1 Stars
Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick.
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, Thomas Haden Church, Nicole Ari Parker, Martin Sheen, Ronny Cox, James Patrick Stuart, Stephen Rannazzisi, Mel Harris, Timm Sharp, DeRay Davis, Vanessa Williams, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Stephen Root, Heidi Marnhout, Daniel Polo.
2009 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some mild language and brief questionable behavior).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 8, 2009.
Eddie Murphy (2008's "Meet Dave") has become notorious over the last decade or so for not being the best judge of film scripts, and he is in no danger of breaking the trend with "Imagine That." If not one of the worst family pictures to come down the pike in years, it certainly is one of the most head-scratchingly bland. Had 2008's "Bedtime Stories" done away with its fantasy angle and concentrated on office politics, it might have looked a lot like this cinematic chore. With their meager work here, director Karey Kirkpatrick (2006's "Over the Hedge") and screenwriters Ed Solomon (2003's "The In-Laws") and Chris Matheson reveal that they have no idea what they are doing or who they have made the movie for. Children will be bored stiff by the lethargic pacing, confused premise, and nearly endless boardroom scenes, and adults will feel like they are back at work attending a dry staff meeting. The mind positively boggles how something as dull as "Imagine That" is receiving a cushy nationwide summer release instead of being shelved for three years before disappearing to DVD.

Recently estranged from wife Trish (Nicole Ari Parker), Evan Danielson (Eddie Murphy) is a financial executive who spends too much time at the investment firm where he works and not enough time connecting with young daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). When Olivia starts relaying to her father her imaginary friends' advice on picking clients, he is understandably dismissive at first, and then intrigued about how she seemingly has the inside track on his job. With boss Tom Stevens (Ronny Cox) planning to retire and name a successor, Evan begins relying on Olivia's fantasy world to give him the upper hand over main competition Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a phony, Zen-like mystic hiding a ruthless streak.

"Imagine That" is being marketed toward kids, but one would scarcely know it by what has ended up on the screen. Some spare manic bits of camera mugging from Eddie Murphy and the participation of a cute little girl, newcomer Yara Shahidi, are the only signs that this is Paramount Pictures' target demographic. It is safe to say the young ones will be far from riveted by a film set in the world of investment firms and financial bigwigs, and these at-work scenes go on and on and on throughout, frumpily shot and lacking in energy, to boot. Meanwhile, the business with Olivia's security blanket and the imaginary world of castles and princesses she creates are never visualized, leading to a bunch of other scenes of Evan and Olivia traipsing around his apartment play-pretending. All the viewer gets to see are two characters talking to thin air. Doesn't exactly sound thrilling, huh? Of course, Evan will bond with Olivia in a way he never has, and of course he will learn to prioritize and see what is most important in his life. It comes as no surprise when a make-or-break meeting is scheduled for the same day and time as Olivia's school program, but it is rather creepy when he barges in on a sleepover that his daughter is attending for the sole purpose of snatching her blanket.

The imaginary friend aspect of "Imagine That" has not been adequately thought out. Were director Karey Kirkpatrick to suggest that Olivia has made these figures up as a way to finally get to spend time with her dad, the revelation of such might have held some relevance and dramatic weight. Likewise, if it was discovered that Olivia was able to correctly guide Evan through his job simply from spending so much time at his place of business and teaching herself, then that would have made for a sneakily inventive twist. The final product, however, chooses neither of these options. Olivia appears to genuinely believe in this land of made-up characters—at least for most of the running time—and the only explanation offered for her correct advice-giving is sheer coincidence. That the story is told from Evan's point-of-view does not contribute to the viewers' interest in him or the fate of his job—he's not particularly likable except for in a few mildly engaging moments he shares with Olivia—and so we sit there unable to care about anything at all. There are very few funny moments, and the proceedings are too based in an adult reality to muster up whimsy.

Stealing the idea from 2001's "I Am Sam" (which did it better), "Imagine That" is filled with Beatles cover tunes (i.e. "Here Comes the Sun," "Nowhere Man," "All You Need Is Love") for no detectable reason. At the very least, these songs signal a timeless quality that the film they are in painfully does not. The movie happens before our eyes, glazing across our optic nerve without giving us anything worth remembering. Eddie Murphy is fine as Evan Danielson, less animated than usual, but why anyone thought a family film about a middle-aged man's business foibles at an investment firm would make for enlightening or diverting entertainment is anyone's guess. The setting is a little different—attractive Denver rather than the usual L.A. or Manhattan—but that is the only original element on-hand. "Imagine That" isn't so much offensively bad as it is offensively, soul-suckingly ordinary.

Special Note: At the advance screening I attended of "Imagine That," a funny thing happened: two of the reels were flipped around, out of order. About an hour into the film, it suddenly skipped ahead by twenty minutes. After that reel was finished, it backtracked to the section that had been skipped, then finally finished up with the proper last reel. The audience members—a collection of parents, kids, and critics—were so disinterested in what they were watching that they never so much as stirred or alerted anyone to this series of events. I personally think seeing the film out of order enhanced the experience, turning a turkey of an Eddie Murphy vehicle that gave me nothing to think about into an unorthodox "21 Grams"/"Memento"/"The Sweet Hereafter"-style effort where the lack of chronology is a critical part of its narrative. Having to piece "Imagine That" together myself helped to perk me up. All things considered, it was still a weak movie, but one decidedly less painful to endure. Make of all this what you will.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman