by Jef Burnham
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Upon its release last year, Norbit was the number-one movie in the country, despite being critically panned across the board as offensive and discriminatory. This year, Norbit’s star Eddie Murphy and director Brian Robbins attempt to redeem themselves (perhaps not consciously, but we all know they have a lot to make up for) with this PG-rated family film penned by Rob Greenberg (Frasier) and Bill Corbett (Mystery Science Theater 3000). Unfortunately, all indications are that the film isn’t faring nearly as well as the director/star team’s endeavor to deface the obese. And why is that? Where are all those people who laid down their cash to see Eddie Murphy as a fat, black woman shooting off the end of a water slide? Why wouldn’t they want to see something that, especially given the collaborating screenwriters, may actually be smartly funny? Because all anyone cares to see is Eddie Murphy in a fat suit, and, let’s face it, his career over the last 10 years has pretty much hinged on fat suits.
In Meet Dave, Murphy once again takes on a double role as the captain of an alien ship and as the title character, who is neither human nor a living being, but in fact the space ship in question. The interior structure of Dave, and even more notably the crew structure, resembles that of the Starship Enterprise. The funniest bits in the movie come from the crew’s attempts to pilot the Dave-ship in a way that is convincing of human behavior. Murphy’s physicality is extraordinarily funny in his first attempts to walk, smile and shake hands. Unfortunately, once the crew becomes adept at imitating humans, the funny material slowly drifts away and is replaced by unfunny stereotyping and the predictable family film anticlimax where everyone comes to realize just how much they learned from one another. The lack of creativity in the latter half of the film was a disappointment to me as a fan and supporter of Corbett and the rest of the MST3K/Rifftrax team.
Still, it succeeded for me as a family film, taking me back to the PG pictures of the 1980s that I grew up on, when designation as a family film did not require computer-animated talking animals, and a film could have just as much material for the adults as the kids. There are a number of jokes and cultural references that no one under the age of 20 is apt to get, which will feel very familiar to those acquainted with Mystery Science Theater. For example, the entirely white suit as seen donned by Murphy in the film’s trailers is the result of the only transmission their race has received from Earth being a short clip of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island. I found that at moments like these in a theater otherwise occupied by children, I was the only one laughing; so I give a great deal of credit to the film’s universal accessibility.
Despite the bit of a dive the film takes in the middle, Meet Dave will provide those families who deem it at least as worthy of a viewing as Norbit with a bit of intelligent comic relief from this summer’s more bleak, super hero-dominated fare without deviating entirely from the adventure genre. Don’t let the lack of fat suits or talking donkeys dissuade you, there are plenty of laughs in Meet Dave for everyone.
Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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