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Daddy Day Care

Two of the most surprising things in Daddy Day Care:

  • Eddie Murphy not swearing in a live-action film.
  • Properties from Paramount and Warner Brothers getting serious and yet subtle screen time in a Sony film.

    And here's the most surprising thing of all: even though it plays out fairly predictably, Daddy Day Care is actually pretty good.

    Murphy plays Charlie Hinton, a rising executive for a food company that seems to market largely to children. With his partner Phil (Jeff Garlin), Charlie has been stuck trying to sell an unthinkable product: Veggie-Ohs, a breakfast cereal made from all the things no right-minded kid would want to eat in order to get the day started.

    Driven to succeed, Charlie predictably has left the most important child out of his personal equation: his own son Ben. Though his wife, Kim (Regina King), has stayed home with their son, that's about to change as she wants to start practicing law.

    Kim's actual occupation, or success at it, is utterly peripheral to the plot, but at least it affords the introduction of Miss Harridan, a role Angelica Huston could play in her sleep. Luckily, Huston strikes a fine balance between over-the-top villain and cardboard cutout as this headmistress of an exclusive pre-school.

    It's easy to laugh at little social digs such as SAT prep classes for three year olds, but it's also hard to shake the feeling that this sort of thing might be happening. Fortunately for the withdrawn Ben, Dad loses his marketing job after a test group of children riots over Veggie-Ohs, and since they can no longer afford daycare, the slick Charlie is now a stay-at-home dad.

    Weeks go by without a new job offer, but an off-handed remark by a neighborhood mother causes a lightbulb to glow in Charlie's head. Pulling Phil into the deal, they start a day care center out of their home…and then the hijinks start.

    Though such set-ups are the stuff that long-running treacly sitcoms are made of, Daddy Day Care avoids a lot of the normal path by presenting some fairly realistic kids. Though two of Phil and Charlie's charges do have out of the ordinary quirks, they are the type that any reader of this site can admire: one will wear nothing but a Flash suit (and the adults don't know what he really looks like), and the other…well, it provides a pretty good punchline and an excuse for the third day care teacher, Max (Steve Zahn) to join up.

    Director Steve Carr paces the whole thing pretty well. Though he's not a flashy director, he lets Geoff Rodkey's script speak for itself. A good move, too, because though Rodkey has the occasional urge to go for cheap laughs, he mostly has the patience to let funny situations play out over time. It's more about the characters living than being purposely hilarious.

    Plus they got Cheap Trick to do a cameo.

    Because it's Murphy's movie, he gets to learn an important life lesson, and he does it with restraint. There are a lot of points where it would be easy for Murphy to go off on a wild riff, but he never forgets that he's supposed to be a vaguely out of touch father. When he discovers moments that reach his son, it's purely accidental. As a result, this is the most believable Murphy has been in a long time.

    He's also a surprisingly generous actor, giving much of the real laughs over to other actors. Though Garlin essentially follows in the footsteps of John Goodman, he does it well.

    Zahn steals the movie for fanboys everywhere, as his character Max manages to channel his prodigious comics and Star Trek knowledge where it will do the most good: teaching it to little children. When "Flash" says he'd really like to fight The Joker or Lex Luthor, Max corrects him on his choice of Rogues' Gallery, then sneers at Murphy, "What are you TEACHING them?" If that doesn't seal the deal for you, then how about this: the geek gets super-hottie mom Leila Arcieri. (That one might destroy reality, though: she, too, is really into science fiction and is eager to see a revival of Logan's Run.)

    Also taking some moments and running with them are a variety of character actors and stand-ups, proving in many ways that Murphy doesn't forget his roots. The most low-key and ultimately twisted cameo comes from Jonathan Katz as a childcare facility inspector.

    As a result, Daddy Day Care has a story that may fit more comfortably into kids' secret wishes, but just enough skew to hold adults' attention. And a family film that can please both audiences without insulting either's intelligence is a rare thing.

    What's It Worth? $6

    Derek McCaw

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