Even the laughs are small in 'Dave'

Moviegoers have come to know four Eddie Murphys. There's Crazy Eddie, the unabashed low comic who loves to hide himself in prosthetic makeup and play multiple roles in movies like Norbit. There's the family-film comedian, Mr. Ed, who makes sweet, soft comedies like the Dr. Dolittle movies, or applies his braying vocal prowess to cartoons such as the Shrek series. There's Fast Eddie, the dynamic, ad-libbing movie star who helped power 48 HRS. and carried Beverly Hills Cop. And finally, there's just plain Eddie Murphy, the actor who produced a piercing, rounded picture of an actual human being in Dreamgirls- that should be the Murphy of the future. Meet Dave makes me fear it's not.

More palatable than Norbit but equally uninspired, Murphy's benign, pedestrian Meet Dave mostly gives us Mr. Ed, with a bit of Crazy Eddie mixed in. He plays a miniature space captain - and by miniature, I mean Tom Thumb-size - from the distant planet Nil. But he also plays the captain's spaceship, which looks and sounds exactly like the captain and obeys the captain's commands. "Spaceship Dave" (the film's original title) is also human-size - and, especially in New York, can easily pass as a human being.


Presumably because this ship is too small for telescopes or radar, the skipper makes a hard landing on Liberty Island. He aims to retrieve and activate a small, globular device that crashed in nearby Manhattan but was meant to drain the Earth's waters for salt. (Nil runs on salt.) In the story's key coincidence, Spaceship Dave runs into Gina Morrison (Elizabeth Banks), the mother of a fifth-grader, Josh (Austin Myers), who once possessed the sought-after thingamajig. To be precise, she runs into him - with her car. But he doesn't simply track down his target and take the super-salt-maker and run. Spaceship Dave observes random acts of intelligence and kindness in Manhattan, and Gina and Josh teach him the power of love - which the captain begins to realize he shares with his cultural officer (played by Gabrielle Union).

For the New York humor, think fish out of water: Dave raises his hand to hail a cab and wonders why an alien can't get a taxi.


For the shipboard humor, think Fantastic Voyage or Osmosis Jones, or the final sequence of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex with bathroom gags instead of bedroom jokes. As soon as you hear the captain refer to his second-in-command as Number Two (Ed Helms), you know how that name will pay off. And at the film's scatological peak, director Brian Robbins takes you inside Dave as he enters a hot dog eating contest and disposes of the winning meal.

For the social comedy, think stereotypes: When earthly emotions begin to stir within the captain and his crew, the spaceman who enjoys A Chorus Line finds his true identity as a gay hairstylist

It's all light and genial, and the miniature scale keeps the obligatory action climax from becoming too much of an assault.

The main problem is the movie hems in Murphy. Of course he wins some laughs from Dave's otherworldly speech patterns and rigid formality - instead of saying he must go to the men's room (to dispose of those hot dogs) he announces, "My colon is impacted." He proves mildly amusing when Spaceship Dave first tries to walk: He echoes the creaks and cricks of Jack Haley's Tin Man. And as Dave mimics human expressions, the star, at his most inventive, turns his face into a series of clown masks.

Yet the performance registers as a collection of turns. Neither director Robbins nor Murphy forge enough of a connection between Dave and all those really little people inside of him, especially the captain. Inside Spaceship Dave, Murphy delivers nothing more than a polished caricature of a classy Patrick Stewart-like commander. It seals him like an airtight spacesuit and keeps us from seeing his robot alter ego as nearly human. There's not enough juice in the captain to power up Spaceship Dave.

Meet Dave will be more entertaining for grade-school kids than such recent, overpraised kiddie pictures as Kit Kittredge and Nim's Island. And its embrace of Earthly chaos has a fuzzy, don't-worry-be-happy feel to it.

But Murphy should beware. After Fred MacMurray began a run of Disney family pictures like The Shaggy Dog, he startled audiences as a cad in The Apartment (the way Murphy did as an R&B; burnout in Dreamgirls), then retreated to his role as the amiable father on television's My Three Sons. With movies like Meet Dave, Murphy may be on his way to becoming a TV dad.


Meet Dave

(20th Century Fox) Starring Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union. Directed by Brian Robbins. Rated PG for some bawdy humor and language. Time 90 minutes.