Meet Dave

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“Meet Dave” is bad, obviously. You can tell from the trailer, and from the fact that it stars Eddie Murphy (in a dual role!), and from its director being Brian Robbins, whose previous crimes include “Hardball,” “The Perfect Score,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “Norbit.” As a critic, you never want a film to be bad — you do have to sit through it, after all — but let’s be honest: The shocker here would have been if it were any good.

The film’s concept is actually promising, as far as sci-fi comedies go. It’s about an alien race of tiny people who come to Earth in a spacecraft built to look like a human man. Inside the ship is a crew of a few dozen of these aliens controlling the body’s movements, leading it around New York City in search of a lost orb that the aliens need to save their dying planet. To observers, of course, it just looks like a guy walkin’ around.

Murphy plays the ship’s inch-tall Captain, who doesn’t have a name, as well as the Earthling-sized spaceship, who calls himself Dave. Evidently the Captain is so renowned and admired on his home planet that they designed the ship to look like a giant version of him. He provides the ship’s speaking voice and governs its movements, barking commands to underlings who are numbered rather than named. Number 2 (Ed Helms) is deeply suspicious of Earthlings and wants to destroy them all. Number 3 (Gabrielle Union) is in charge of researching Earth’s culture (she is very bad at this, though the movie doesn’t acknowledge it) and is in love with the Captain. Number 4 (Pat Kilbane) is a rough and surly security officer, until the ship wanders into a Broadway performance of “A Chorus Line” (what, you can just slip in through a side door now?), whereupon he immediately becomes fantastically, flamboyantly, embarrassingly, stereotypically gay.

Starship Dave (which was the original title of the script, by the way) is crossing the street in New York when he happens to get hit by a car, which happens to be driven by Gina Morrison (Elizabeth Banks), whose young son Josh (Austin Lynd Myers) happens to have found the orb that the aliens are looking for. But a bully took the orb, which just looks like a rock, away from Josh, so there’s a delay in retrieving it. In the meantime, Dave becomes friends with Gina and Josh, who know that Dave is a little odd but have no idea he’s actually made of metal (or whatever) and contains a hundred tiny people.

The film — originally written by Bill Corbett of “Mystery Science Theater” and “Frasier” sitcom writer Rob Greenberg, though heaven knows what indignities befell it in the production process — fails in its execution by refusing to let the story drive the jokes, rather than the other way around. When the story drives the jokes, the laughs flow organically from the characters and the situations. When the jokes drive the story, as they do here, there is no internal logic or consistency. Characters and situations change haphazardly according to the needs of the gag at hand.

The aliens know all about the Earth’s physical properties (they’re after the salt in its oceans), and traveling here was obviously a major undertaking … yet they have done zero advance research on its customs, peoples, and practices. Why? So that we can have jokes where Dave behaves outlandishly or bizarrely. If he was prepared to fit in among the humans, you’d lose all that potential for cheap laughs!

Once they arrive, Number 3 is tasked with using the ship’s computers to learn as much as possible about Earthlings. (Again, why couldn’t they do this before they left?) When Gina mentions the Bee Gees to Dave, Dave quickly internalizes all the ship’s data on the Bee Gees and spouts some facts, then sings “Staying Alive.” Thirty seconds later, Gina hands Dave a bottle of ketchup to go on his eggs, and he drinks it. She mentions the family’s house cat, and when Number 3 Googles “cat,” she gets a video of a lion, so now Dave is terrified of the cat.

Well, which is it, movie? Are they rapidly gathering data and making Dave into a walking, talking computer? Or are they bumbling idiots who don’t know the difference between a house cat and a lion and can’t Google “ketchup” to see what it’s for?

Dave is wearing an out-of-fashion white suit. The explanation for this is that the only transmission the aliens ever got from Earth was an episode of “Fantasy Island,” and Ricardo Montalban wore a similar suit. That’s good for a laugh — but if they’ve been studying that TV show as their only source of information about Earth, they’d have learned at least some basic things like handshakes and customary greetings, and they would know what “laughter” is. Yet Dave is baffled by an outstretched hand, and he thinks “Welcome to Old Navy” is how Earthlings say hello to each other, and he has to mimic people when they laugh because otherwise he wouldn’t know how.

Well, which is it, movie? Was “Fantasy Island” their only source of info? Or was the “Fantasy Island” thing just so you could make the joke about Dave’s suit? Admit it, it was the joke thing, wasn’t it?

When Dave retrieves the orb from the bully, he holds the kid upside-down by his legs. The bully protests, “You’re giving me a wedgie!” I have to conclude from this that the filmmakers themselves are entirely unfamiliar with the human body, as being held upside-down would not produce a wedgie. In fact, it would produce the opposite, i.e., your pants and underwear would slide toward your feet. Why have him declare he’s getting a wedgie when he obviously isn’t? So that Dave can refer to the wedgie in a comically over-clinical fashion, of course, something about “your undergarments being forced uncomfortably into your rectum.”

You can’t go around changing the facts of the story just to fit whichever joke you’re currently trying to make. You have to decide the facts first, and then let the jokes stem from that. That’s Comedy 101. That’s common sense. That’s the difference between a funny movie and one that is weak, amateurish, and stupid.

“Meet Dave” is weak, amateurish, and stupid. It’s little more than an excuse for Murphy to mug, mince, and cavort, which at this point is a sad spectacle indeed. The film supposedly cost $100 million to make, but I don’t know where all that dough went, considering the special effects tend toward the cheap and unconvincing.

By the end, I was cringing with embarrassment over the clownish dialogue these poor actors were being forced to deliver. Hopefully, people like Elizabeth Banks and Ed Helms will learn from their mistakes and be more careful in their future career moves. Sadly, I doubt Eddie Murphy will. He has a history with this kind of thing. His next project? “A Thousand Words,” about a man who learns he only has that many words left to speak before he dies. It’s being directed by Brian Robbins. Heaven help us all.

D (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, some crude humor, a little very mild profanity.)

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