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MOVIE REVIEW

Imagine That

'Imagine That' stretches a cute concept

BRUCE MCBROOMThe chemistry between Eddie Murphy and Yara Shahidi as father and daughter is the best part of ''Imagine That.'' BRUCE MCBROOMThe chemistry between Eddie Murphy and Yara Shahidi as father and daughter is the best part of ''Imagine That.'' (Bruce Mcbroom)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 12, 2009
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'Imagine That" is family-movie mediocrity (lately, it seems that unless we're talking about Pixar there's no other kind). A workaholic dad bonds with his creative 6-year-old daughter, who brings him to her imaginary world, which due either to lack of money or, well, imagination, the audience doesn't get to see. You can take the title any number of ways: as a command, the beginning of a sentence that trails off, what someone says when surprised by a bit of news, or how one feigns that surprise. Eddie Murphy in another mediocre family comedy? Imagine that.

But the movie, ho-hum as it is, manages to be oddly, worryingly of interest. You want to see how much the cynicism can swallow up the wholesomeness. It's like watching a snake eat a mouse. The divorced workaholic dad, Evan (Murphy), is a high-level investment banker. The daughter, Olivia (Yara Shahidi), talks to imaginary friends. The father, who's in the middle of several major deals, can't be bothered with the little girl or her imaginary world - until her chums start giving him sound investment advice. Suddenly, he's thrilled to run around his Denver loft, cover his head with Olivia's favorite blanket, and ask her fake friends for real recommendations about which companies to invest in.

This is like watching one of those financial commercials that play during changeovers on tennis broadcasts. The movie's actual ads even come with an apt tag line: "What if your daughter's imagination was the secret to your success?" UBS and ING must be kicking themselves. But a cute advertising premise stretched to feature length kills the charm of a gag that should last no longer than 50 seconds.

Directed by Karey Kirkpatrick and written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, authors of the first two "Bill & Ted" movies, "Imagine That" goes on for well over 90 minutes. It's clogged with earnest covers of Beatles music, and leaves you in a bind about the father-daughter relationship. Olivia has no idea what her advice means. She thinks she's just helping Daddy. And boy is she. He's this close to trumping his nearest rival, a flamboyant American Indian (Thomas Haden Church) who gives Power Point presentations with nature backgrounds and tree-stump pie charts. The white bluebloods eat up his slideshows and tribal counseling ("The best spear is the one you don't throw").

Some movies seem like they might have been written by executives at a board meeting. This one seems like it was written by executives in a golf cart. (A securities blanket? Really?) What child wants to listen to men wearing suits in drab-looking offices talk about a 4 percent reallocation away from some kind of arbitrage?

The movie was made before the economic crisis, but the idea of two adult bankers desperately relying on kids and mumbo jumbo for investment tips inadvertently explains how we got there ("I wanted to ask about magnesium futures," says Evan to an imaginary queen). But "Imagine That" is not a farce - not on purpose. It's a cartoon. And the children at the screening I attended seemed to enjoy it well enough. Who doesn't love a kid high on energy drink? Or a little smart alec? For the smart alec, Murphy shares a too-brief scene with Bobb'e J. Thompson, the reigning bad boy of underage blue comedy, which for Murphy must be like Dorian Gray in reverse. (Will Murphy ever curse again?)

But, really, if there's a reason to sit through any of this (and I'm not saying the reason is that compelling), it's the connection Murphy has with Shahidi, a sweet, eloquent cutup. This is the umpteenth occasion Murphy has shared the screen with either a child, a pet, or, in this case, a pet child. But here the children bring out the best - OK, the better - in him. The choice not to show Olivia's world is justified only by the fun he and Shahidi have pretending the place exists.

They make pancakes, which she douses in a range of non-maple condiments. Murphy teaches her how to sing a song for a school show (the movie saves its syrup for that sequence), and she parodies his guttural gospel. "Oh, my baby sound like Minnie Riperton," he exclaims. Not quite. But this little girl makes starring in such a crass excuse for an early Father's Day gift more tolerable than it has any right to be.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

IMAGINE THAT Directed by: Karey Kirkpatrick

Written by: Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Yara Shahidi, and Thomas Haden Church

At: Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs

Running time: 107 minutes

Rated: PG (some mild language and brief questionable behavior)

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