Journey to the Center of Dave

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Warner Bros.

Brendan Fraser as Professor Trevor Anderson in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

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Eddie and the Space Cruisers

Invitations to critics' screenings of Meet Dave were as hard to get as tickets to an execution, so I went to the first public showing, at midnight last night. It was like a private screening, though. I was the only person in the theater, after the other ticket-holder, a woman in her 30s, gave up when the show was late in starting and said she thought she'd go home to her kid. The solitude gave me plenty of space, and the film plenty of free time, to contemplate some first principles about its star, a quarter-century into his Hollywood career. Call them Murphy's Laws.

There are two kinds of movie comics: the actors and the vaudevillians. The first kind plays a more or less realistic character who happens to be funny, the second ignores the rest of the cast to monopolize screen time and the audience's amusement. Murphy is a prime example of Type B. Lacking the attention span to play one person per film, or the interest in sharing a scene with anyone but himself, he assayed three characters in last year's Norbit and in Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn (not a bad movie, by the way), four in Coming to America, seven, then eight in the Nutty Professor tandem. Here he's just the man-size robot spaceship, on the loose in Manhattan, and, inside the ship, its inch-high Captain. (Hence the movie's ad copy: "Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave.") Doing just two roles is strangely modest and minimalist for Murphy, like Jim Carrey playing a Carthusian monk.

And while I'm making lists of twos, I'll add that Murphy knows how to make only two kinds of pictures: the ones where makeup demon Rick Baker encases him in a monstrous fat suit, and wan space comedies including The Adventures of Pluto Nash and today's epic. The sight of Eddie as the 400-lb. Rasputia in last year's Norbit had its guilty pleasures, but the more genteel Meet Dave is still a relief from those Murphy movies where the morbidly obese expel more gas than the entire sheep population of New Zealand.

In 1960 Jerry Lewis played an alien come to Earth in Visit to a Small Planet. The new movie is kin to it, except that Murphy plays the captain as a dignified soul who learns to be sympathetic with the Earth people and picks up some of their more endearing habits. The other character, the robot in a white suit (inspired by Ricardo Montalban's haberdashery on Fantasy Island), is a Lewis-like accumulation of odd tics and right-angle moves.

In addition to helping Eddie get through an entire movie where he just looks like Eddie, director Brian Robbins (Norbit) and writers Rob Greenberg and Bill Corbett must provide comic relief of a lower sort. So there are three excretion gags (one funny), a lame impersonation of a gay guy and one joke that made me laugh: Murphy the immaculately dressed robot tries to hail a taxi, whose driver avoids him to pick up a white man farther down he street. "What?" says Murphy. "An alien cannot get a cab in this town?"

I realize I haven't yet mentioned any actors besides Murphy. It's only fitting, because this epochally ordinary movie is all his, just as the yoyos and falling rocks are the one reason for children of a certain age to sit through Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. That film is also being shown in a flat version, so make sure someone hands you glasses on your way into the theater.

Neither movie will kill you — in part because you, dear savvy, picky reader, won't see it. But either one is the sort of entertainment that will keep kids occupied with the innocuous.

Or they could do something more artistically rewarding, like go out and play.

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