Eddie Murphy hasn’t had a great deal of success of late, Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls aside (six years ago now!) The donkeywork on Shrek has dried up and the once sure things of family remakes (Nutty Professor, Dr. Doolittle) have given way a string of flops (this, Imagine That, A Thousand Words). Meet Dave was a write-off before it was even released, and its quality seemed to be determined by its box office. What I’m saying is, Meet Dave isn’t that bad.
Now, Norbit. That’s a truly dreadful film. Which made a ton of money. Besides its star, the two have a director in common. One Brian Robbins. He’s become something of a go-to guy for Murphy, and his career takes in acting, writing, directing and producing. If only he was exceptional at just one of these. Pushing oneself doesn’t seem to be high on the agenda with comedy actors, however. Creating a comfortable working environment is paramount; quality comes a distant second. Why else would Adam Sandler make every movie with auteur Dennis Dugan? Sandler’s still having (increasingly less substantial) hits. Murphy may need rethink his devotion to Robbins given this and last years A Thousand Words. That said, Robbins’ work here is largely competent; what you want, however, is someone who will run with the craziness of the concept.
To be frank, it’s surprising that a comedy with this premise was greenlit in the first place. So much is ripe for ruin with the execution that’s its astonishing the result is quite watchable. An Eddie Murphy-shaped spaceship (original film title, Starship Dave) lands in New York, the miniature occupants on a mission to locate an orb that will extract the planet’s sea salt (and bring destruction to the Earth). Along the way the spaceship (“Dave Ming Cheng”) meets a single mom (Elizabeth Banks, as ever a good sport) and son (Austin Myers), while the crew learn something about being human.
Before it sinks up to its neck in schmaltzy plot twists in the last twenty minutes, Dave does a pleasant enough job hitting some very obvious targets. First up, it’s the opportunity for Murphy to engage in protracted bouts of physical comedy as the difficult-to-control starship. Whether it’s crazy walking, talking, imitation of those he encounters (his grinning reactions to Marc Blucas are especially mirthful) or excessive consumption of hotdogs (“Excuse me, my colon is impacted”), Murphy’s on fine form. There’s little opportunity for the actor to engage in traditional Eddie riffing, but he essays both his characters charmingly. His other role is the straight-laced starship Captain (one wonders if the vague Star Trek vibe attracted Murphy; after all, he was once mooted to appear in The Voyage Home), gradually learning to engage emotionally (they’re all a bunch of Vulcans, basically) and pucker up with Gabrielle Union.
The obstacles to fulfilling their mission are sometimes well integrated (the kid bullying Myers), sometimes not (Scott Caan’s alien-obsessed cop). Ed Helms is initially good fun as No.2, increasingly losing it, and Pat Kilbane’s amusing as a Frankie Goes to Hollywood look-a-like No.4, but ultimately the requirements for a dramatic resolution and cloying moralising supplant the more anarchic and observational impulses.
Meet Dave must have at least one high profile fan in Doctor Who executive producer Steven Moffat, whose 2011 episode Let’s Kill Hitler appears to be a direct (and inferior) rip-off. Presumably Moffat thought plundering its premise wouldn’t matter as no one saw the film.