Eddie Murphy is a master at comic reaction. Like a living, breathing FedEx — his delivery is always, unfalteringly on time. Murphy’s problem — and he has, in recent years, developed a big problem — lies with the projects he’s accepted as his fame has grown. The days of the raucous Eddie, the days of Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places, have been replaced by lighter, more family-oriented fare like Dr. Doolittle and The Nutty Professor.
With the exception of last summer’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a static, unfunny embarrassment, most of Murphy’s projects tend toward placid, middle-of-the-market fluff. Every so often, there’s a showcase for how brilliantly funny he can be — a masterful vocal turn Shrek or a riotous double role in Bowfinger — but the comic who got his start on “Saturday Night Live ” (and who, to this day, refuses to discuss his affiliation with that show) seems content to remain firmly ensconsed in mediocre family entertainment.
And you can’t get more mediocre than Daddy Day Care. Saddled with a narrative so broad and obvious that it might have been scrawled out of an eight box of Crayolas, Daddy Day Care is an excuse to watch Murphy react to a bunch of hyperactive, patently adorable children as they kick him in the shins, rip up his house, and lay waste — literally — to his bathroom before evolving, under his care, into perfect little darlings.
Make no mistake about it, the movie makes you laugh, sometimes heartily. But the humor is bottom-of-the-barrel cheap and pratfall-heavy. And the action seems to be set in an alternate universe where an angry swarm of wasps can assault two grown men but leave no discernable stings.
Murphy plays Charlie Hinton, an advertising exec who loses his job after a campaign for a vegetable-flavored children’s breakfast cereal goes bust. Together with a similarly unemployed pal, Phil (Jeff Garlin) and a Star Trek nerd named Marvin (Steve Zahn), Charlie starts a day care service, aimed to compete with a more expensive, academically demanding Chapman Academy, a facility at which the children are forced to wear uniforms and behave more like the chilling tots from Village of the Damned. The academy is run by the strict and uncompromising Miss Harridan (Anjelica Huston, doing her best Mrs. Danvers), who takes umbrage to this shaggy dog upstart where kids are permitted to do what kids do best: play.
Charlie and crew have their hands full, coping with visits from child care inspectors who can’t be bribed with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies; children who, hopped up on sugar, destroy everything in sight before crashing hard at naptime; and nasty bits of sabotage by the villainous Miss Harridan. At one point, the beleaguered Charlie is offered his old job back and, much to the dismay of his own four-year-old son Ben (the infinitely cuddly Khamani Griffin), takes the offer. It won’t be long, though, before Charlie realizes what’s truly important — because Daddy Day Care, written by Geoff Rodkey and directed in staid, workmanlike fashion by Steve Carr, wants to do more than entertain: it wants to show that daddies make good mommies, too, a battle already fought and won by Michael Keaton in 1983’s Mr. Mom, and to a less comedic extent by Dustin Hoffman in 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer. (Daddy Day Care features a nod to the latter, with a son matches pop gesture for gesture moment at the breakfast table.)
Through it all, Murphy conjures up one comic reaction after another, scrunching his face, bulging his eyes, reacting in horror to the sight (which we, thankfully, never see) one youngster’s misaimed doodie. The trouble is that Murphy seems content not to participate in the humor. He’s here as straight man, leaving the jokemeistering to the semi-capable Garlin and exceedingly more capable Zahn. The kids are mostly vessels for on-screen cuteness, allowing women in the audience (like those behind me at the screening) to squeal and coo beyond all reasonable measure every time the camera zooms in for a tight shot on one of the little treasures.
If Daddy Day Care succeeds at any one thing, it makes you wish that Murphy would get off his ass and return to raw basics. After all, it’s us grown-ups who put him in the catbird seat; don’t we deserve a little care of the adult comedic variety ourselves?
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