Movie review: 'Daddy Day Care'

2 stars (out of 4)

Eddie Murphy, a comic sometimes-genius who can play it raunchy or nice, shows his sweet side in "Daddy Day Care," a likable little movie without much to offer but cute tots, recycled gags and a talented cast amiably wasting their time and ours.

Shining in the midst of slick malarkey, as he often has before, Murphy plays an unemployed, middle-class, suburban-L.A. dad, Charlie Hinton, who stumbles on the idea of opening a child-care center called "Daddy Day Care." This high-concept notion hits Charlie after he's forced to stay at home, cede bread-winning chores to his saucy wife Kim (Regina King) and become Mr. Mom to his little son Ben (Khamani Griffin) after losing his go-go, upwardly mobile job at an ad agency where high-sugar cereals and backstabbers rule.

Joining forces with his also-fired best chum Phil (Jeff Garlin) and lovable, eccentric former coworker Marvin (Steve Zahn), Charlie shows a flair we would never have guessed he had if not for those "Daddy Day Care" trailers. He puts the kiddy corral in his home, attracts a clientele and starts a gender-bending day-care revolution.

Things start shakily. At first the manly caregivers display stunning ineptitude that includes losing kids and suffering catastrophic, Farrelly Brothers-style toilet accidents. But their eventual success infuriates the local day-care queen, Gwyneth Harridan (Anjelica Huston), evil boss of pricey Chapman Academy, where they have a college prep track for 4-year-olds and a décor that suggests a Nazi dominatrix movie after a thorough scrubbing.

Gwyneth starts playing very dirty, the script starts flashing its cliches, and the three Daddy Day Care guys manfully cope with everything from dirty diapers to cockroach-infested picnics to outright bureaucratic sabotage as they bounce happily along to a climax that comes out strongly for male parenting, cute little kids and lovably wacky behavior.Directed by Steve Carr - his first non-sequel after "Next Friday" and "Dr. Dolittle 2" - and written by TV scribe Geoff Rodkey, this movie probably won't outright irritate you unless, like W.C. Fields, you can't stand kids. But it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for such unabashed, uninspired Hollywood "product" - the cinematic equivalent of a Ronald McDonald playground where clowns caper and keep shoving Big Mac-size plot shtick at you every few minutes.

Murphy created such a bad-mouth image in his '80s heyday - in "Raw," "Harlem Nights," "48 Hours" and the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies - that it's sometimes startling to see him in this clean-cut, all-American daddy mode, as if George Carlin were doing a Fred MacMurray takeoff. Murphy can be effective as a sweetie, like his Klump in "The Nutty Professor" movies. But nice-daddy roles like this, soft-pedaling the mischievous, devilish quality that made his fortune, seem too tame for him. His portrayal Charlie is a subpar, business-as-usual performance, though not disgracefully so.

Murphy's comic sidekicks - the bearish Garlin ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and Zahn, who seems to be cornering the current movie market on smirky dweebs and addled druggies - are pretty funny but uninspired. The kids are predictably adorable, though only Griffin and Jimmy Bennett (as Tony, who never takes off his "Flash" uniform) really stand out. Huston, meanwhile, gets to do the kind of hammy John Barrymore-ish turn that her father, John, used to revel in, strutting around like a cross between Vampira and Clifton Webb's fey babysitter Mr. Belvedere. She's fun, but like Murphy and Zahn, she has to play down to the oversold and underwritten material.

Rodkey, a writer for the non-saccharine "Beavis and Butthead" and "Politically Incorrect," rolls out the poo-poo jokes and cutesie-tootsie gags with a certain efficiency, and he throws in sarcastic jibes at preppie-style day care, high-sugar cereals and vacuous ad campaigns to try to give the show some bite - to no avail. He also leaves what seems like lots of improvising room for Murphy and company. But though the studio claims the script took Rodkey a year to write, it's hard to fathom why. Endless rewrites? Computer trouble?

Watching the actors play with the script in "Daddy Day Care" is a bit like watching a slick pro basketball team trying to play a game with large cantaloupes instead of a ball; even if they dunk a few times, it's a dispiriting spectacle. The movie uses Murphy like a pickpocket diva and the little kids like shills. They mean to empty our pockets, but they tend to empty our minds as well.

"Daddy Day Care"
Directed by Steve Carr; written by Geoff Rodkey; photographed by Steven Poster; edited by Christopher Greenbury; production designed by Gareth Stover; music by David Newman; costumes by Ruth Carter; produced by John Davis, Matt Berenson, Wyck Godfrey. A Sony release; opens Friday, May 9. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: PG (language).
Charlie Hinton - Eddie Murphy
Phil - Jeff Garlin
Marvin - Steve Zahn
Kim Hinton - Regina King
Gwyneth Harridan - Anjelica Huston
Bruce - Kevin Nealon

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