Daddy Day Care

(2003) ** Pg
90 min. distributer. Director: Steve Carr. Cast: Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, Steve Zahn, Regina King, Kevin Nealon.

Anyone familiar with Chris Columbus's pre-Harry Potter output will recognize Daddy Day Care as a Columbus film: alternately tinkly and sweeping John Williams score, sunny visuals, upper-middle-class characters, well-scrubbed homes, and cute kids. Except Daddy Day Care is scored by David Newman and directed by Steve Carr (Dr. Dolittle 2).

Whatever. It's still the cinematic opiate of the masses. Too hackneyed for adults to truly enjoy and, as ever, a trifle questionable even for the kids in its ability to hold attention between fart jokes, Daddy Day Care cuts a good preview and stars Eddie Murphy, so it's juuuust fine by Hollywood. Crank up the Jackson Five!

Eddie Murphy plays Charlie Hinton, a hapless health-food pusher clogged in the bowels of a junk food conglomerate. Along with his humorously overweight buddy Phil (Jeff Garlin), Charlie gets downsized. Remarkably, this experienced professional utterly fails to hook any employment bites, so he finds himself stewing at home with his young son (Khamani Griffin). While at the park one day, Charlie has a brainstorm: by God, he should open a PG-rated comedy--I mean, a day care center in his home!

Charlie and Phil are the sort of dingbats who think passing out a mission statement to the rugrats is a great idea. Charlie's wife (Regina King) raises an eyebrow, as does the increasingly skeptical Phil, but Marvin (Steve Zahn), the to-the-day-care-born Trekkie who joins Charlie and Phil, knows better: Daddy Day Care is destiny!

Murphy is, unsurprisingly, above this material, so it's a back-handed pleasure seeing him elevate it with easy-going, funny line readings, probable ad libs ("I ain't gonna front. Those little crumb-snatchers got under my skin"), and at least one credible dramatic beat. Garlin has his moments, though he seems ill at ease with an uncharacteristically large part, while Zahn typically aces his typecast slacker role. Garlin and Zahn execute multiple pratfalls with aplomb, but the familiarly inorganic plot machinations blunt the film's attempts at scoring the big laughs.

Screenwriter Geoff Rodkey sets up and knocks down the requisite plot reversals, conflicts, and character types, including the interference of the tightly-coiled Miss Harridan (Anjelica Huston). Huston reprises her tightly-coiled dominatrix-under-wraps persona from The Witches as the headmistress of Chapman Academy, a pre-school which offers SAT prep.

Indeed, Daddy Day Care flirts with horror more than once, first in an "upper class panic" scene which has the Hintons recoil at the white trash alternatives to Chapman, then in a projectile poop scene appropriating Bernard Herrmann's Psycho strings yet once more (might as well put poor Bernie's casket on a mechanized spit).

Such pop music and pop culture references are half the fun of this half-fun (and, it must be said, cute) movie. One of the tykes identifies as the Flash and refuses to doff his beloved costume. Another speaks primarily in Klingon, which immediately endears him to Zahn's fanboy. Jonathan Katz turns up to do his next-generation Newhart routine as the man from Child Services, whose Star Trek puppet show for the kids ventures humorously into adult themes.

The film also includes an appearance by the band Cheap Trick, which is appropriate as it's a rather cheap trick to rip off Mr. Mom (a la Columbus's Tootsie rip off Mrs. Doubtfire). For the record, I'd take Columbus's marginally better cookie-cutter comedies over Daddy Day Care's blunt-edged scissors any day.

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