This family-friendly Eddie Murphy vehicle–designed, one suspects, to rescue once more a career plagued by a recent succession of bombs aimed at adult audiences–is, on the surface, nothing more than a sweet, simple, gooey fable about how an out-of-work father’s decision to start an at-home daycare service brings him closer to his adorable son and teaches him what’s really important in life. On this (admittedly low) level the picture largely succeeds, the modern equivalent of one of those old white-bread, assembly-line live-action Disney flicks that Fred MacMurray might have starred in aeons ago. Murphy’s uncommon restraint keeps things grounded reasonably well; he tones down the usual mugging, and the resultant sedateness is actually rather comforting (so much so that it might actually lull you to sleep). He’s ably abetted by not one but two canny second bananas as his associates in the kid-sitting business: the affably sluggish Jeff Garlin (Larry David’s agent-buddy on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), who’s a sort of low-key John Goodman figure, and the more manic but oddly lovable Steve Zahn. (Neither is used to best effect, to be sure, but the material doesn’t entirely stifle them.) There’s also a passel of scene-stealing tykes (led by Khamani Griffin as Ben, Murphy’s own son), and a hugely broad, comically villainous turn by Angelica Huston, as the unscrupulous headmistress of a competing children’s school, that recalls her work in “The Witches” ( a far superior movie), as well as an amusingly deadpan one by Jonathan Katz as a well-intentioned governmental investigator. Although “Daddy Day Care” has entirely too many of the bathroom-associated gags that afflict parent-kiddie flicks nowadays (one involves a reprise of the screeching violins from “Psycho,” for the use of which one trusts the Herrmann estate has been properly compensated), many viewers will doubtlessly succumb to its overwhelming cuteness and cuddly calculation.
If one examines Steve Carr’s efficient, if cloying, crowd-pleaser more closely, however, it’s actually a very curious piece. Its message is that a parent is most fulfilled by staying at home and nurturing his child’s special qualities and that children benefit enormously from such attention, but at the same time what it glorifies is a day-care center where working moms and dads can confidently dump their kids in selfish pursuit of their careers. While the script exalts a sense of family, the real parents pretty much disappear (even Murphy’s own wife, played by Regina King, becomes a virtual non-presence when she goes off to join a law firm); they’re replaced by the transforming “family atmosphere” that Murphy and his cohorts provide, in contrast to the highly disciplined book-learning approach favored by the Huston establishment. (This whole educational conflict might have been lifted from the pages of Rousseau’s “Emile.”) One can visualize how “Daddy Day Care” will appeal to the mothers and fathers who ordinarily entrust their children to others during the week (and try to make up for it on a Saturday afternoon by taking them to a movie like this one). On the one hand, it will feed into their contempt for the “professional” outfits that treat their offspring in a rather impersonal way. On the other, it will assuage their guilt at putting the children in the care of others by assuring them that the youngsters can benefit if only it’s done right. The picture thus both plays on their fears and reassures them–a canny sleight-of-hand which will allow them to have things both ways. After all, if the movie were true to its supposed premise it would end not with the burgeoning success of Murphy’s venture but with a decision by all the parents of his charges to abandon their jobs and become stay-at-home moms and dads. But that’s hardly a message most of the target audience would want to hear.
Still, while “Daddy Day Care” is hardly a model of logic or more than the most rudimentary comic inspiration, it does manage to hit its target, even if it’s aiming very low. A couple of final points. The music behind the opening credits is the gruesomely familiar “Walking on Sunshine.” Even if you like the song, it’s got to be the single most overused old tune in modern Hollywood movies; and interrupting it for a urination sound gag–as Carr does here–doesn’t improve it. Could it please be permanently retired, or at least be sent off on a couple years’ sabbatical? Then, the closing crawls are accompanied by what now seem the inevitable out-takes–unfunny ones at that. Can those, too; haven’t people yet learned that it’s a device best left to Jackie Chan?