It’s a strange feeling to recommend one of Eddie Murphy’s family comedies, but there you have it: “Imagine That” is a truly sweet-natured picture with a few laughs and a smart performance by Murphy.
It was written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, who did “Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure” many years ago.
I don’t know how long the script has been sitting around, but it’s a throwback to the “absent father” genre that was all the rage in the 1990s.
Murphy plays a Wall Street hotshot, separated from his wife, whose parenting skills are feeble. But when his fantasy-minded 7-year-old daughter (Yara Shahidi, a natural) displays an uncanny ability to predict the rise and fall of stocks, he finds a new interest in spending time with her.
You can see where things are going, and “Imagine That” doesn’t earn any points for originality. But it redeems its deadbeat dad with efficiency, and it gives Murphy a chance at being likable again.
Maybe Murphy, like his characters, realized he needed to rediscover his playfulness (last year’s flop “Meet Dave” locked him in a concept comedy that didn’t allow any warmth). Maybe director Karey Kirkpatrick, whose only previous directing credit was the crisp animated film “Over the Hedge,” kept a loose set and let Murphy do his thing.
Whatever it was, the result is a relaxed, amusing family film that doesn’t have to apologize for dumbing anything down.
Murphy actually looks like he’s enjoying himself, and he doesn’t need to revert to prosthetics or talking animals to get the laughs.
The grown-up part of the movie is actually funny, too: Murphy has an office rivalry with an American Indian stockbroker (Thomas Haden Church at his oiliest) who channels various spirit guides while suckering his clients. They’re competing for attention from a big wheel (Martin Sheen) who might take over their firm.
Of course, the whole Wall Street setting is another thing that makes “Imagine That” feel dated, now that the financial system has collapsed. But the kiddie audience won’t care about that.
The Murphy haters who decry his turn toward PG films will no doubt hate this one, too, but it’s much better-made than the “Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle” movies. A well-tuned formula film is much more bearable than an inept formula film, and “Imagine That” is well tuned.