Eddie Murphy has long since tired of Eddie Murphy parts. Before he began parodying himself in Bowfinger, he accepted high-paying roles in low-rent movies that neutered the character he had carefully honed before he was even 25. He spent most of the ’90s in movies — The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, Metro, Holy Man — written for “an Eddie Murphy type” he no longer had any interest in playing and audiences had no interest in watching. So do not lament what he’s become — a 42-year-old Bill Cosby, selling multiplex Coke with a smile — because what he was wasn’t doing him any good anyway.
Murphy’s a family-movie man now, a reformed R-rated performer playing for the G-rated crowd — a straight man no longer bent out of shape by Cosby’s request that Murphy stop using foul language, the subject of a vitriolic screed in 1987’s Raw. Charlie Hinton, the out-of-work cereal marketing man Murphy plays in Daddy Day Care, would be appalled at the things Murphy used to talk about in his stand-up act. Charlie is a square suburban father whose best friend and closest colleague is an overweight white guy named Phil (Jeff Garlin, from Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Daddy Day Care, directed by Dr. Dolittle 2‘s Steve Carr, updates Mr. Mom without that film’s smirky wit and depressed fog; in 1983, Michael Keaton, still early in his career, was sharpening the edges Murphy has chosen to dull. Daddy Day Care is all cute grins and tears of joy played out on the faces of the dozen Gap Kids wrangled for the daycare center Charlie and Phil open when they’re thrown out of work. Even the film’s villain — Anjelica Huston as Miss Harridan, the Cruella de Vil-like headmistress of a preschool that offers SAT prep — is more annoying than terrifying. Her idea of sabotage is calling Child Protective Services, represented by a kindly Jonathan Katz, who works out his own marital issues with Mr. Spock and Lieutenant Uhura dolls. (Daddy Day Care bursts at the seams with Star Trek and Flash comic-book references, embodied by Steve Zahn as a cuddly childcare worker who puts on Wrath of Khan puppet shows.)
The movie gets its laughs from the endearing kids, who fart and squeal and squirm (and, in one case, speak Klingon) enough to wear down your defenses. Murphy is little more than the eye at the center of the storm that destroys his lovely home — literally, but never figuratively.
This is Murphy’s métier now: cuddly patriarch, not crass kid. He seemed to be saying as much even in an “adult” comedy like Bowfinger, in which he was far more contented delivering Groucho Marx lines as Jif. He inhabited Jif like an innocent child, almost as though he were delighted to shed the cynicism and get down to the sweet, chewy center — or daycare center, in this case.