To quote the immortal Styx, "And I believe if we learn from the past/We'd say haven't we been here before?" It's that old familiar feeling once again as the immensely talented comic actor Eddie Murphy grabs a piece of driftwood and floats our way from his deserted island. With Murphy on board, the family science-fiction comedy Meet Dave is almost good enough to get a pass for what it is, if not for some garish mistakes.
The premise is decidedly sitcomedic, redolent even of the notoriously bad sitcom Herman's Head, by way of Star Trek. Murphy plays a human-shaped space vessel on an obscure mission to save its home planet, whatever the cost to planet Earth. Murphy also plays the captain of the ship's miniature (from our perspective) crew. For unexplained reasons (hey, they're aliens!), the crew's speech borders on the robotic and their behavior on the Vulcan. But as they become exposed to human culture (and with Google as their database, they reach many comic misapprehensions), the beings from Planel Nil begin to thaw and become gross caricatures of earthlings.
The MacGuffin here is a small meteorite that crashes through the window of 11-year-old Josh Morrison (Austyn Lind Myers). Out of step with his classmates, Josh is ripe for an adventure with some life lessons, and the aliens oblige when they realize that Josh and his widowed mother Gina (Elizabeth Banks) stand on the only path to the meteorite , which is actually a device designed to suck the Earth's oceans dry. Early on, the ol' fish-out-of-water trick, coupled with Murphy's physical and verbal genius, pays dividends. Murphy's lurching interpretation of a spaceship trying to walk like a human, its bizarre facial mimicry, and its tongue-tied attempts to make small talk are frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
But if Meet Dave is better than Norbit, the last comedy to pair Murphy with director Brian Robbins, it's also nearly as disappointing by the time the credits roll. Robbins directs with a distressing stylelessness and an insatiable commercialism (I stopped counting at five prominent brand-name product placements). Yes, it's a kid's movie at heart, meant to have a Sunday-funny guilelessness, but it needn't be this pappy. A worse crime is Robbins' willingness—or is it eagerness?— to indulge offensive sterotypes, most egregiously limp-wrist-tossing, finger-snapping gay characters. Aside from being particularly out of place in a kids' movie, this kind of socially retrograde humor should have died out a long time ago.
Such blots on an otherwise amiable comedy are a shame. The supporting cast (including Gabrielle Union, Ed Helms, Scott Caan, Mike O'Malley, Kevin Hart, Judah Friedlander, and a lost-looking Marc Blucas) can't make much of their generic material, but whenever Murphy's in the center of the frame, the humor perks up. Wearing a white suit modeled on the '70s TV star the aliens studied from deep space, "Dave" manages to maximize social awkwardness in every situation. In an affected semi-British accent, Murphy somehow makes comic gold of lines like "Lt. Buttocks, what is your status?" He's worth every penny they're paying him.
But when we get a colon joke while the rectum joke from a few scenes earlier is still ringing in our ears, we know the film is losing steam. With mission seemingly accomplished, the third act lags with silly theatrics involving an arrest and a mutiny. It's also an increasingly common bad sign to find the pretty nifty special effects taking a dip in quality towards the end of the film, the case here when we get the inevitable Incredible Shrinking Man/Woman climax. Eddie, it's time to start thinking big again.