Title aside, there is not much imagination in this formulaic story of a daddy who discovers the value of his daughter’s imaginary friends — and then learns that it is his daughter who matters most of all. But I am an unabashed sucker for daddy-daughter movies, the little girl is adorable, and I was immensely relieved to see Eddie Murphy in a movie that is not terrible, so I found myself smiling.
Murphy plays Evan Danielson, who is very good at his job as an investment advisor but not very good as a husband and father. Although he and his wife Trish (the always-graceful Nicole Ari Parker) have recently separated, his primary concern is his competition at the office with Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a competitor at the office who uses his Native American heritage to sell his investment ideas to clients.
Perhaps because of the separation, Evan’s daughter Olivia (adorable Yara Shahidi) has become very attached to a security blanket she calls her “goo-ga.” When it is over her head, she talks to her princess friends. All of this is distracting and frustrating for Evan, who is caring for Olivia full-time while Trish is busy with work. But then he discovers that Olivia’s imaginary friends have some real-life insights into the companies he is analyzing. And as he spends time with Olivia to get access to the secrets of her imaginary friends, he discovers how much more important she is than any investment or promotion or client could ever be.
This much we knew going in. And parts don’t work at all. The entire Whitefeather plot line is clumsy and borderline racially insensitive, especially when it involves his son. There is too much about business and investments that will be confusing to children. Martin Sheen is underused. But DeRay Davis as Danielson’s former football-player friend is wonderfully natural and leaves us wanting to know more about his character.
Basically, it’s a little “Liar Liar” and a little “The Game Plan” and lighter-weight than both if such a thing is possible. But there is a reason this theme connects so successfully. As with “The Game Plan,” the little girl has the power in this relationship. She is not a bully or a brat and she is not selfish. She is wise and has a degree of control that is a very compelling and reassuring fantasy for children. By encouraging her father to do silly things she helps him to relinquish his own sense of control and need for success and connect to his capacity for fun and play. Shahidi and Murphy have an easy chemistry on screen that comes across as authentically sweet. Murphy will never be a subtle performer but he limits himself to just one role and seems to enjoy portraying the straight-laced but superbly professional Danielson and allowing him to thaw without overdoing it. And any time Murphy does not overdo it, that’s worth seeing.