In the first, hope-filled minutes of Meet Dave, the new Eddie Murphy vehicle seems like a Trojan horse, a new Starman or Brother from Another Planet in the guise of a big-budget sci-fi comedy. After making his name as a ferociously funny stand-up comedian (Raw) and upending cultural icons with glee on Saturday Night Live (a hot-headed Gumby), Murphy developed into an agile and astute physical comedian in films, especially after 1996's The Nutty Professor opened the door to playing multiple characters within the same movie.
When Dave Ming Chang makes his first appearance, crash-landing ostrich-style on Liberty Island then taking his first tentative steps like a marionette being jerked in a dozen different directions, Meet Dave looks like a fun summer lark. It could be a fish-out-of-water tale with Murphy at his most earnest and elastic. That illusion is short-lived. As Dave, donned in a blindingly white disco-era three-piece suit and wingtips, makes his massively awkward attempts to fit in, someone else is pulling the strings.
For their first screenplay, Rob Greenberg (Frasier) and Bill Corbett (Mystery Science Theater 3000) have constructed Dave as a vessel for Lilliputian aliens who have come to locate an ocean-draining orb that's fallen into the hands of gawky Josh Morrison (Austyn Lind Myers). The tiny crew members each guide different parts of Dave's anatomy under the guidance of their Captain, also played by Murphy, whose fastidious formality is tempered by a curiosity for these technologically inferior giants so ruled by their emotions.
With multiple Murphys and an unusual premise, Meet Dave has potential, but quickly unravels. Director Brian Robbins, who guided Murphy to multiple Razzies with Norbit, shoots Manhattan as a high-gloss fantasyland, its inhabitants guided by some loopy sitcom logic, particularly Josh's ridiculously overaccommodating mother, Gina (Elizabeth Banks).
Worse yet, a major chunk of screen-time documents the aliens adopting human behavior that's based on well-worn stereotypes; it's not only offensive, but makes for badly dated comedy. When the Captain views Gina's streaky greeting card heart painting and It's a Wonderful Life, it brings forth unexpected alien empathy, and tips the film into a gooey sentimentality that nearly drowns everyone.
For every clever bit (unified field theory rendered on a chalkboard for mystified fifth-graders), there are moments of stupefying lameness that are only funny in a parallel universe. The aliens aren't the only ones who could benefit from an encounter with real humans.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.