Whether you see “Meet Dave” or not, you’ve probably already met Dave.
He’s the latest in a long line of Eddie Murphy roles that are family friendly, vaguely amusing and usually impervious to negative reviews.
Critics have trashed Murphy’s comedies over the past decade, a period in which he’s replaced the biting humor of his 1980s standup routines and early, acclaimed films such as “48 Hrs.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” with broad antics, bathroom gags and fat suits.
“Meet Dave” tanked at the box office in its opening weekend, and Murphy went through a rough patch in 2002 when he starred in “I Spy,” “Showtime” and his most notorious bomb, “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” But most of his recent movies have enjoyed box-office success, or at least have done decent business.
And we’re not talking about the “Shrek” movies, a proven franchise in which Murphy plays a supporting part as the voice of Donkey. We’re talking about the ones in which he’s the star — the movies in which he usually plays multiple roles, showing off his versatility.
“Norbit,” for example, earned him three Razzie Awards this year — for best actor, supporting actor and supporting actress — and it received just 9 percent positive reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site. But it opened at No. 1 with $34.2 million when it came out in February 2007, on its way to earning $95.6 million.
And let’s not forget that “Norbit” also earned an Academy Award-nomination for its special-effects makeup. Then again, there’s the theory that “Norbit” may have cost Murphy his own Oscar for best supporting actor in “Dreamgirls”: Academy members driving around Los Angeles were constantly confronted with billboards of Murphy in all his garish, gargantuan glory, appealing to the lowest common denominator, and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him.
“Meet Dave,” a sci-fi comedy in which Murphy plays a human-sized spaceship and the tiny captain controlling the craft from inside the head, didn’t fare nearly so well as “Norbit.” It had slightly better reviews — 21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — but only opened at No. 7 with $5.3 million.
From Wesley Morris’ one-star review in The Boston Globe: “There’s a tremendous possibility that Murphy has no friends. What kind of pal would let the star of ‘Pluto Nash’ near another science-fiction comedy?” to The Associated Press’ one-and-a-half-star review from yours truly: “‘Meet Dave.’ Or don’t. Eddie Murphy doesn’t particularly seem to care one way or the other,” critics were not kind.
But Joe Leydon was more charitable in Variety: “(Murphy’s) gracefully awkward body language in Dave’s early scenes recalls Steve Martin’s herky-jerky hilarity as the spiritually possessed lawyer in ‘All of Me.”’
(Murphy, by the way, didn’t show up for the film’s Los Angeles premiere last week; the official word was that he was stuck in production on “A Thousand Words,” a comedy about a guy who only has 1,000 words left to speak before he dies. It reunites him with Brian Robbins, who directed him in both “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.”)
Films offer an escape
Still, there’s a comfort level for viewers when they go to a Murphy movie, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking company Media By Numbers.
“The Eddie Murphy brand, coupled with an outlandish story line, offer an escape to people who aren’t looking for a serious-minded movie. Regardless of critical reviews or even if word-of-mouth is not strong, there’s always an audience. “
Looking at his work over the past decade, that’s held true:
—“Dr. Dolittle” (1998). Murphy talks to the animals.
Tomatometer: 44 percent. Gross: $144.1 million.
—“Life” (1999). A return to buddy comedy for Murphy. He and Martin Lawrence co-star as two criminals sentenced to life in prison for a murder they didn’t commit.
Tomatometer: 49 percent. Gross: $63.9 million.
—“The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” (2000). The sequel to the 1996 hit “The Nutty Professor” finds Murphy crawling back into the fat suit to play eight different parts.
Tomatometer: 25 percent. Gross: $123.3 million.
—“Dr. Dolittle 2” (2001). Murphy talks to more animals.
Tomatometer: 41 percent. Gross: $113 million.
—“Daddy Day Care” (2003). Murphy and Jeff Garlin play out-of-work fathers who open a day care when money gets tight.
Tomatometer: 28 percent. Gross: $104.3 million.
—“The Haunted Mansion” (2003). Based on the Disney theme park ride, it features Murphy as a real estate agent who schleps with his family to check out a creepy old house.
Tomatometer: 13 percent. Gross: $75.8 million.
—“Norbit” (2007). Murphy plays a put-upon geek, his overweight shrew of a wife and an Asian stereotype.
Tomatometer: 9 percent. Gross: $95.6 million.
Razzie founder John Wilson thinks this recent streak signifies that Murphy needs a wake-up call to put his career back on track.
“He is a very talented comedic entity. He has incredible gifts and he can be incredibly funny. He seems to think the public expects him to do certain things, to be in certain things, to use certain formulas, and he falls back on that over and over and over again with diminishing returns,” Wilson said. “It’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen him in anything in which I thought he was at the top of his game.”
Nevertheless, you can’t ignore Murphy’s longevity, Dergarabedian said: “Sometimes you scratch your head and go, ‘Why is he doing this movie?’ On the other hand, the numbers speak for themselves.”