All it took to cut Eddie Murphy down to size was playing a character 2 inches tall. As a pinkie-sized starship captain sent to save his home planet by stealing Earth's natural resources, Murphy pares away the fat of "Norbit" and "The Nutty Professor" in "Meet Dave," the most amiable alien invasion movie in recent memory.
The captain and his crew, a bunch of solid, humorless types from the planet Nil, make their transgalactic journey in a ship shaped like a realistic looking, human-scale version of its commander in chief. After a few awkward attempts at putting one foot in front of the other, the man-ship and its crew make their way into Manhattan, clad in a spiffing white three-piece suit like an interstellar Tom Wolfe.
A stranger in an even stranger land, the captain struggles to assimilate the customs of this odd planet. Adopting the inconspicuous name Dave Ming Chang, he gulps ketchup from the bottle, stuffs hot dogs into his cast-iron stomach and meets a single mom (Elizabeth Banks) who awakens some distinctly un-Nilian feelings in him.
Alternately playing an emotionless alien and a man-size machine, Murphy is forced (or, perhaps more accurately, forces himself) to rein in the frenzied mugging of his recent comedies. He's his own straight man, baffled by the emotional surges and unplanned movements that take hold of his real and mechanical selves. As the technicians struggle to control his unwieldy limbs, the ship-Dave keeps a cheerful grin plastered to its unmoving face.
If Murphy seems to have learned something from the scathing reaction to the excessive and generally grotesque "Norbit," Brian Robbins, who directed that movie as well as this one, has not. As if to make up for Murphy's tightly controlled performance, the movie's other actors are pushed past the limits of parody. A graceful actress in a thankless role, Banks is given little but a string of open-mouthed reaction shots, and Gabrielle Union fares no better as the captain's onboard love interest. The ship's unnamed crew members are a collection of undifferentiated types who evolve into lazy caricatures under the influence of Earth's undisciplined emotions. There's a black crewman (Kevin Hart) who becomes a trash-talker lech after he's exposed to hip-hop, a mustachioed grunt (Pat Kilbane) who catches a glimpse of "A Chorus Line" and swiftly goes gay, and a nerdy engineer (Judah Friedlander) who starts racking up MySpace friends. For a self-proclaimed superior race, these Lilliputian explorers are notably underdeveloped.
The flimsiest character in "Meet Dave" is Manhattan itself. No matter where Dave wanders, he never strays too far from recognizable landmarks. One minute the Statue of Liberty, the next Times Square. "Meet Dave" pays lip service to the joys of exploring new worlds, but it never steps off the tour bus.
"Meet Dave." MPAA rating: PG for bawdy and suggestive humor, action and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.