If you'd told me 20 years ago that Eddie Murphy would wind up in a movie called Daddy Day Care, I would have said, "Right, and Robin Williams will do a remake of Flubber." In 1983, Murphy was coming off 48 Hrs. and Trading Places, two movies that provided fitting forums for his brash, multitudinous talent. Plus, he was still on "Saturday Night Live," eviscerating Bill Cosby with a dead-on impersonation. Today, Murphy has become Bill Cosby, handing out Jell-O Pudding Pops to a cast that consists mostly of 4-year-olds. Daddy Day Care, in which Murphy plays an out-of-work father who starts his own preschool, seems expressly designed for 4-year-olds. Its idea of a joke is for a kid to give a grown man a swift kick to the crotch ' that plus farts, poop and the tinkle-tinkle-splash of a toddler missing the porcelain bull's-eye.
It's been 20 years since Mr. Mom, so the idea of dads raising the kids isn't exactly cutting-edge humor, but director Steve Carr and writer Geoff Rodkey seem to feel even less urgency than that. There isn't a story here so much as a comedic situation ' a sitcom, in other words. And you can almost imagine the filmmakers sitting down and making long lists of the various ways youngsters can raise hell. (Kindergarten Cop appears to be a touchstone.) Mostly, the little hellions run around and jump on the furniture. And although you'd wring their necks if they tried this stuff in real life, they are cute, in part because they're still too young to have acquired all those child-actor mannerisms. Before long, Murphy and his co-star, Jeff Garlin (from "Curb Your Enthusiam"), have whipped them into shape, proving once again that anything women can do men can do better, given a male scriptwriter.
Anjelica Huston shows up every once in a while as Miss Harridan, the commandant of a competing preschool that offers German, tai chi and SAT prep. It's a funny idea, and Huston appears ready to play, but nobody's given her anything to play with ' decent dialogue, for instance. As a "Star Trek" nut who learned everything he knows about child-rearing from accidentally reading Dr. Spock, Steve Zahn is good for a laugh or two. But it's up to Murphy and Garlin to turn nothing into something, and they're just not up to the challenge. Garlin kept reminding me of George Wendt ' mildly amusing, at best. And Murphy? Well, he didn't exactly phone his performance in, but he didn't exactly show up either. What has happened to this great comedian, who is now, as one of the fathers in Daddy Day Care puts it, "wipin' boogers for a living"?