There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) where someone asks, “Why do all comedians turn out to be sentimental bores?” If you need an example of this, Eddie Murphy and Imagine That are here to give you a crash course. It’s not the best example, unfortunately, since the sentiment in Imagine That is phony and unconvincing (it’s processed-cheese, dewy-eyed emotion), but the movie more than makes up that shortcoming by going long on boredom.
Murphy plays Evan, a hotshot financial planner who is also the father of a painfully adorable, precocious little girl named Olivia (Yara Shahidi). Because Olivia is having issues dealing with her parents’ divorce, she carries around a blue blanket and the only people she’ll listen to are her four imaginary friends. Evan, being the workaholic father he is, pays more attention to his job than to Olivia, while kvetching over how Olivia refuses to grow up. That is, of course, until her fantasized pals start to give Evan stock tips and he begins making money for his clients. He then begins to pay attention to his daughter, playing with her and indulging in her childhood whims and fantasies.
It’s pretty simple to see where all this is going, since Imagine That soon turns into a mawkish treatise on the corrupt nature of money and the importance of family and other obvious life lessons. The lesson concerning money is fine to a certain extent, and would be a difficult idea to argue with—except for the fact that it’s being made in a movie that cost tens of millions of dollars to make and is voiced by an actor who made a reported $20 million for The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). Look, if Mr. Murphy would really like to make a statement he can come do my job. I’ll gladly take a few million to make The Nutty Professor III: More Klumpin’ and be just as unfunny.
On top of all this, the movie—which, keep in mind, is aimed at kids—spends most of its time bogged down in the minutiae of economics and board meetings, discussing yields and grosses and percentages. This was dull to me and I at least pretend to be an adult, so imagine the fascination of 8-year-olds in the audience with talk of magnesium futures.
The pity in all this is that Murphy’s actually pretty good in his role. He never wows you, but he’s likable enough (at least in the instances where he’s not hamming it up) and has a good rapport with Shahidi (who’s never anything more than another cute child actor in a long line of cute child actors). I actually had a few moments where I thought, “Oh yeah, this is why he’s in movies.” Then he tried to do something funny and it all flittered away.
Then again, some of this might have to do with how downright obnoxious Thomas Haden Church is as Evan’s business rival, Whitefeather. Church never does anything approaching clever or funny. A supposed Native American, Church runs around in bronzer, spouting phony Native American mumbo jumbo (something that’s fairly offensive until the obvious third-act cop-out). Sure, as the bad guy, Church is supposed to be unlikable, but in this case he’s just annoying.
Ultimately, however, Imagine That is a movie without an audience. Kids will be antsy; parents will be disinterested. For a movie that puts so much importance on the magic of imagination, the least it could’ve done is had a little bit of its own. Rated PG for some mild language and brief questionable behavior.