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Meet Dave (2008)

Alien Concept

Who could have predicted that one of the few bright spots in a miserable week would be Meet Dave? I put on Brian Robbins' spectacular 2008 flop expecting more abuse along the lines of The Love Guru, but wound up (mostly) loving it.

Don't worry: you didn't overlook a hidden gem five years ago by skipping this in favor of The Dark Knight. As a comedy, Meet Dave isn't very good; as an Eddie Murphy comedy, it fares even worse. Fortunately, it's neither of those things. This is a family film, and those require a different set of criteria in order to appreciate their charms.

Think back to the movies you loved growing up. Kids of my generation can hold our nostalgic heads high when gushing over The Empire Strikes Back or The Goonies. But a lot of not-so-epic entertainment was also successfully packaged and sold to us, precisely because we weren't old enough to know better. I can't rationalize my love of Superman III without mentioning how many times my seven-year-old self watched it on HBO. Watching Meet Dave, I thought, "This is really earnest and kind of amusing, and I would have loved it as a kid."

Murphy stars as Captain, the very proper, non-descript leader of an alien exploration crew. He and his team visit Earth in search of a device they've misplaced: a metallic orb lodged inside a meteorite that will drain the planet of its salt and sustain their home world for generations. The aliens look and talk just like human beings. But because they're less than an inch tall, they get around in a massive starship that, to the outside world, looks a lot like Eddie Murphy in a sharp, white suit.

The ship adopts the name "Dave", and as the crew struggles to pick up the nuances of human interaction, we see it walk awkwardly, stare inappropriately at strangers, and butcher casual conversation to the point of rudeness. This endears Dave to Josh (Austyn Myers), a kid whose mother, Gina (Elizabeth Banks), accidentally ran him over. Josh is a weird, sensitive kid, and so responds to Dave's sincere inability to relate to people.

From here, Meet Dave sails on in exactly the manner you'd likely expect it to. Or maybe not. For every "Dave helps Josh stand up to the school bully" storyline, there's a far more interesting turn of events where the guy (Marc Blucas) courting single-mother Gina doesn't turn out to be a huge, jealous tool. I also like screenwriters Rob Greenberg and Bill Corbett's idea that the human spirit is a sort of airborne virus: within days of walking around New York City, Captain and crew begin shedding their buttoned-up ways in favor of compassion for the race they've come to kill. The change comes not through immersion in pop culture, but rather as an allergic reaction to the planet--which is neat and unexpected.

The cast is definitely game, and features what we can now look back on as chock-full of up-and-comers. Banks was tip-toeing into stardom in 2008, as was Ed Helms, who plays Captain's mutinous second-in-command. Mike O'Malley and Scott Caan also pop up as a pair of bickering cops, and it's fun to see them bring their specific, actorly "things" to a kids' movie. Granted, all this hindsight musing would not have been possible had I reviewed the film on release, but I figure I'm in the majority of people who saw (or will have seen) it after its theatrical run. Regardless of the mental IMDb game Meet Dave offers, everyone came to play here--even Murphy, who, by all rights, could have just phoned in his performance long-distance.

It's not all fun and games, though. As a parent, there's a particular sub-plot that I would be tempted to either skip through or discuss heavily if I ever show this movie to my son. One of the alien crew members (Pat Kilbane) comes out as gay during his sojourn on Earth. There's nothing wrong with that, but the portrayal is swishy to the point of being offensive, and I had a hard time justifying the performance or the part as written. For a movie that goes out of its way to subtly tweak audience expectations, the flamboyant creature who discovers a fondness for scarves and makeovers is a disappointing detour into caricature.

Contrast this with what may or may not be a cleverly disguised war metaphor, and the laziness is even more baffling. With some minor tonal adjustments, Meet Dave could have been a dark sci-fi allegory for the Iraq War (slow your rolling eyes, kids; remember, this was the summer of 2008). A technologically advanced power invades a seemingly backwater civilization it doesn't understand in order to steal its most precious natural resource. The invaders put on a smiling face, even as they plan to leave a chaotic, dying shell in their wake. Because this is a family film, we get the requisite happy ending. But there's a refreshing undercurrent of darkness that kept me wondering, "What if...?"

Again, if you're over the age of twelve, there's probably very little for you here. But as children's entertainment, Meet Dave is enjoyable, cute, and exceptionally well-produced. The picture bombed hard, costing $60 million and grossing just under $12 million, and you really can see every dollar on screen. From the whiz-bang tour of Dave's complex engineering systems to the warm interior design of the ship's bridge, it's clear that a lot of thought went into making this an actual movie rather than a dumb special-effects show.

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