Meet Dave

(2008)

by D. B. Bates, Editor-in-Chief

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

Meet Dave, the latest in a long line of disposable Eddie Murphy vehicles, plays like a half-hour sitcom episode that has been stretched to feature-length running time. — Manohla Dargis, New York Times

This sci-fi romp seriously skimps on the sort of wacky comedy that should have flown liberally from such an inspired premise. — Michael Rechtschaffen, The Hollywood Reporter

Better material and more adept direction might’ve made this a perfectly solid commercial enterprise. — Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

I don’t know what caused Eddie Murphy’s gradual decline from the most fearless, energetic standup comic of his generation to the star of family films ranging in quality from mediocre to bad. I do, however, know that schadenfreude has infested the public consciousness. If Murphy refuses to utilize the offbeat, foul-mouthed qualities that made him the biggest comedy star of the 1980s, critics and adult moviegoers will pile on top of him like a pyramid of naked prisoners. Unless you’re under the age of 10, nothing he does is good enough. When he steps out of the family film realm for something like Dreamgirls, it’s hailed as a daring return to something resembling his glory days. Then he does Norbit, and everyone blames that film for his losing an Oscar for Dreamgirls.

It’s easy to forget that Murphy’s movies have been a mixed bag for his entire career (remember Harlem Nights or The Golden Child?), but one thing has always remained true: No matter how bad the end result, he always gives it his all. Even miscast as the straight man in the Dr. Doolittle films, he performs with the same verve and vitality he did 30 years ago on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t enjoy The Nutty Professor or Daddy Day Care, but I respect Murphy for trying to inject energy and humor into an awful script more than an actor who’s just in it for the paycheck.

When a friend of mine told me he and his family found Meet Dave hilarious, I didn’t believe him. Critics treat most Murphy movies to scathing, unnecessarily hostile reviews (especially when the film isn’t screened for critics, which apparently makes it open season for hostility), so that didn’t surprise me. Usually, though, his movies find a rather large family audience. Meet Dave didn’t, which made it easier for me to automatically side with the critics who dismissed it and the audience who rejected it. Still, a small part of me wanted to believe my friend. Murphy’s not the bad guy here; he’s not exactly innocent, either. He’s sort of like the wheelman who, deep down, knows his friends just ran into that bank to rob it, but he’d prefer to think they just went in to make a deposit.

I finally sat down to watch the film, with no idea what to expect. It was more ignored than hated, so maybe it really wasn’t that bad. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Bill Corbett co-wrote the screenplay, which suggested to me that, if nothing else, the sci-fi jokes would pop. Hell, when I watched it, I didn’t even know it featured a ton of gifted, well-known comic actors (Elizabeth Banks, Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Judah Friedlander, Pat Kilbane, among plenty of others). My expectations went from low to unknown — I had no idea what to expect, which helped me to approach the film with as much objectivity as possible.

Meet Dave is a pleasant surprise: a frequently funny, family-oriented sci-fi comedy boasting two of Murphy’s best performances (as captain and “ship”) since his dual role in 1999’s Bowfinger. First, he plays the stone-faced captain of a Nilian ship. Nilians are tiny creatures who look conveniently like humans but, like Vulcans, aren’t quite tapped into their emotions. They bury everything in a patriotic fervor and dedication to duty above all else. Their starship, as it happens, is shaped exactly like The Captain, in order to blend in with the strange human beings. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the crew’s search for a mysterious orb that will allow them to drain Earth’s oceans and collect the salt, which on Nil is a highly valuable energy source. That’s merely an excuse for some of the oddest fish-out-of-water comedy ever committed to film.

As the ship, Murphy delivers one of the funniest performances of his career. Only a comedian as gifted as Murphy can make expressions as simple as a big smile or a blank stare into hilarious running gags. The bulk of the comedy comes from the schizophrenic idea that one “man” is run by a crew of dozens, with an encyclopedic knowledge of human culture (thanks to their ability to access an Earth database “called the Google”) but a fundamental confusion about how society actually functions. The ship arrives camouflaged in a white suit with big shoulders and wide lapels. Why? Because Nil has only received one transmission from Earth: a brief clip from Fantasy Island, from which they gather all humans wear such suits because Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize do.

Once it lands in New York, the ship is almost immediately run down by Gina Morrison (Banks), a single mother whose driving skills leave something to be desired. An awkward friendship/romance forms when she drags the unwilling ship up to her apartment, because from her perspective he’s a person acting very strangely after getting hit by a car. The bridge crew struggles to convince her of the ship’s normalcy, but their ineptitude only makes things worse, making Gina think something is seriously wrong. The Captain realizes it’d be smarter to keep her as an ally, so they can learn from her, blend in, and find their missing orb.

The ship itself is stocked with comedians, which initially seemed like a needless waste of talent. Why cast funny people in straight, emotionless roles? As the movie unfolds, the answer becomes clear: Ultimately, the film is about the repressed Nilians tapping into the emotions we inferior humans wear on our sleeves. This runs the gamut from Kilbane’s annoyingly over-the-top security chief (who discovers he really wants to be a flamboyantly gay hairdresser after seeing the Rockettes) to the surprisingly emotional moment in which the ship examines one of Gina’s paintings, and the entire bridge crew feels overwhelmed by the emotions it evokes. Another key scene finds The Captain and Number 3 (Gabrielle Union) watching It’s a Wonderful Life, scoffing at its sentimentality before bawling like babies by the end. It might seem a little cheap and easy, but it’s an effective moment that underscores the changes occurring all over the ship.

Emotions overcome most of the crew, but they fear and try to reject them. Only The Captain is willing to embrace these new, unexpected feelings, which leads to a surprisingly dark coup d’etat in which Number 2 (Helms) leads the others in usurping The Captain’s power, then secretly unleashes his own plan to destroy Earth and its terrifying, emotional giants. It’s right around this time that I started marveling at how effectively the film develops these characters and balances the story of “Dave” and Gina with what’s happening on the ship. I’d actually started to care whether or not The Captain would be able to stop Number 2’s plans. (Also, the film gets some props for having the dignity to not use “Number 2” as a poop joke — apparently, the Austin Powers films used up all the good Number 2 jokes.)

The script has a lot of fun with the way people talk to each other, and the confusion colloquialisms and pop-culture references would have on an alien. It’s a long way from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another sci-fi film with a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy. Corbett and co-writer Rob Greenberg really put thought into how aliens might react to behavior we take for granted. Take, for example, another scene that probably only Murphy could make funny. Upon arriving at Old Navy (to buy less conspicuous clothes), he misinterprets an employee’s routine “Welcome to Old Navy” as a customary Earth greeting, which he starts saying to everyone he meets.

I would complain about Brian Robbins, who has specialized in kid-friendly feel-goodery almost without exception (the darkest he gets is Varsity Blues, a melodramatic but decent teen drama). Meet Dave has the potential to transform into a pitch-black social satire and sci-fi spoof, but Robbins won’t let that happen. An edgier director might have played up the satirical bent of the script, but the goal here is to make a true family film. “Family film” has, in recent years, become a euphemism for “kiddie crap,” the sort of film that adults grind their teeth through as their children beg to watch it on an endless loop. Like The Wonder Pets or Pixar films, this is real family entertainment, the sort of thing that parents can watch with their kids without wanting to kill themselves. So Robbins could have brought that same edge that made him so memorable as Eric, the leather-jacket-wearing “cool” genius, on Head of the Class, but that would have undermined its ability to reach a wide audience. Then again, nobody saw Meet Dave, so maybe that didn’t matter.

The film’s special effects are uniformly awful, but I can’t really say anything worse about it than that. It has a well-written, deceptively complex story; great characters; great comedy; and a heartwarming (but not too treacly) message about tolerance, learning from others, and the value of not burying feelings. It’s not the greatest comedy or family film ever made, but it’s far better than average. It opened opposite Journey to the Center of the Earth, which made a lot more money and got much better reviews despite being a significantly worse movie than Meet Dave (and I say that as a longtime Brendan Fraser fan who will defend the merits of Blast from the Past until the day I die). If you like to laugh, Meet Dave won’t disappoint. Just don’t go in expecting merciless, mean-spirited satire.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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