It’s possible to imagine a sardonic filmmaker like Lars von Trier doing justice to the premise of Imagine That, in which a character-deficient businessman tries to exploit his daughter’s relationship with her imaginary friends for his own gain. Alas, it’s wasted as the basis of this latest vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who phones in another typically disinterested, dispiriting performance—this time as Evan, a self-involved investment advisor who only stops neglecting his precocious toddler, Olivia (Yara Shahidi), when her make-believe playmates (a trio of fairy-tale princesses) begin to offer him investment advice, with Olivia as their intermediary.
The likelihood of these imaginary friends being real and not just Olivia’s creation seems strong, given their demonstrated prognostication abilities, but the film chooses to keep the question undetermined, a decision that limits the visual possibilities in store, as well as the fun factor, considering that the youthful target audience would probably like to see Evan and Olivia whisked away to an imaginary kingdom, or have the inhabitants of such a kingdom arrive, Enchanted-style. Instead, kids viewing this film will be asked to endure the story of a businessman with an unorthodox investment strategy, full stop.
In its minimalism that borders on self-parody, Imagine That is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, another film that had its actors walk through everyday environments and interact with unseen forces as if engaged in an acting class exercise. Here, Evan and Olivia repeatedly run a gauntlet of make-believe obstacles in their apartment (“Look out for the dragon, Daddy!”) in order to arrive at the feet of the invisible princesses, who can tell them about anything, even gold futures.
Armed with seemingly infallible market predictions gifted to him by the princesses, Evan eventually proceeds to take on his workplace rival, Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a rising star in the office and a self-evidently bogus Native American who sports long black hair with tied-in feathers and who wows his colleagues at the office with market speculation derived from his spiritual third eye. Haden Church seems consistently primed to deliver in this role, adopting an absurdly wooden demeanor that’s constantly threatening to crack and reveal his character’s true, full-of-shit nature, but frustratingly, the Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson’s script gives him next to nothing with which to work. Most of the workplace scenes also require an inordinate amount of non-comedic, business-talk exposition to set up the meager jokes, a structural problem that, like the film’s overall uneven mixture of adult and children’s elements, is never fixed.
Given that Imagine That opens with a depressingly generic cover of a Beatles song (the first of four) that seems suited for a fast food commercial, it’s hardly surprising when it turns out to be an immediately forgettable piece of fluff, but its central, cynical gag of having the two main characters do little more over the course of the film than run through their own apartment pretending to be in a medieval kingdom full of princes and princesses is a bit of a surprising letdown; it seems like a device more suited to a throwaway television movie than a theatrical feature with a considerable budget and opening during the summer season. Memo to the film’s producers: If we wanted to rely on our imagination to visualize a fantasy world, we could read a book.