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‘Meet Dave’: Tiny aliens, mini laughs

Latest Eddie Murphy vehicle offers the occasional chuckle before drowning in sentiment

If you remember Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask,” you might recall that the film’s most successful vignette showed what was going on inside the body of a man on a date, from Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds as neurons running the brain and nervous system to Allen himself as a reluctant sperm.

Writers Rob Greenberg and Bill Corbett (the latter a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” veteran) obviously remember that sequence, as they’ve lifted its basic shtick for the new comedy “Meet Dave.” The premise of a man-sized spaceship filled with tiny aliens trying to figure out their way around Earth holds plenty of potential, but since it’s an Eddie Murphy family vehicle being directed by the hacky Brian Robbins (“Norbit,” “Varsity Blues”), “Meet Dave” becomes a mushfest where everyone learns to love and grow and whatnot.

Still, given how bleak the Murphy canon has been of late (not counting “Dreamgirls” and the “Shrek” series), “Meet Dave” at least offers three or four scenes where you’ll find yourself giving in to the giggles. To get to those scenes, however, you’ll have to wade through lots of schlocky kid stuff and the barrage of homophobic gags that seem to accompany most Murphy comedies.

With a plot setup that would almost seem to parody Murphy’s proclivity for playing multiple roles in a movie — assuming he has any sense of humor about said proclivity — the actor stars as both the captain of a starship and as the ship itself; since all the denizens of their alien planet are about an inch high, the crew has traveled to Earth in a six-foot spaceship that looks exactly like its commanding officer. The goal is to retrieve an orb that had been sent to Earth months prior, to drain the planet’s oceans and send the salt back to the aliens’ home planet.

After crashing face-first next to the Statue of Liberty, the Murphy-ship tries to make its way around Manhattan. And despite the fact that millions of people live on the island, the spaceship is lucky enough to be run down by the mother (Elizabeth Banks) of the kid (Austin Lynd Myers) who found the orb, thinking it a meteor. While the spaceship tries to find the orb, the crew finds itself being swayed by the more laid-back and fun-loving aspects of Earth life, much to the consternation of the by-the-book Number 2 (Ed Helms), who eventually attempts to mutiny.

The comic linchpin of the film — the spaceship’s awkward attempts to pass itself off as a human being — works more often than it doesn’t. A clothes-shopping sequence, where the spaceship winds up maniacally repeating “Welcome to Old Navy” to everyone it encounters, actually gets laughs, as does a bit of physical humor involving the metallic ship encountering the giant magnets inside an MRI machine.

But there’s way too much time spent teaching both the widowed mom to love again and the kid that he can be a hero despite his size; not that comedies can’t be touchy-feely, but in “Meet Dave” it feels like a pointless, clichéd distraction, especially when you’ve got wonderfully anarchic comedians like Murphy, Helms and Judah Friedlander along for the ride. ( “Meet Dave” also joins the ever-growing list of films that squander the talents of Gabrielle Union.)

It’s a pity someone can’t guide the course of Starship Murphy to a smarter, funnier universe than the one he’s chosen to explore.