Audiences ready, willing and able to find their inner four-year-old may have a decent time at "Daddy Day Care," but others are likely to find Eddie Murphy's latest foray into kidpicdom scarcely more amusing than spending 90 minutes in a pre-K classroom. This comically undernourished junk food snack should draw well initially due to expectations of Murphy tapping into his family-friendly "Dr. Dolittle" vein.

Audiences ready, willing and able to find their inner four-year-old may have a decent time at “Daddy Day Care,” but others are likely to find Eddie Murphy’s latest foray into kidpicdom scarcely more amusing than spending 90 minutes in a pre-K classroom. Aimed at a “Rugrats” demographic of under-8-year-olds and their parents, this comically undernourished junk food snack should draw well initially due to expectations of Murphy tapping into his family-friendly “Dr. Dolittle” vein, but won’t perform on the level of those animal antics or the “Nutty Professor” entries.

“What’s so funny?” little Khamani Griffin, who plays Murphy’s son, balefully inquires at the end of outtakes excerpted under the closing credits. Not this film, unfortunately, and that neatly sums up the problem with this tale of two upper-middle-class suburban gents who react to their sudden unemployment by venturing into “professional” childcare. The work of first-time scenarist Geoff Rodkey’s script could and should have been stoked by a raft of glib experts at situation comedy and one-liners. As the meager story plays out, the situations are there but not the comedy, leaving the result feeling like an early draft quickly and mechanically executed.

The best one can say for “Daddy Day Care” is that it is less crude than the “Dolittle” pictures, the second of which was directed by present helmer Steve Carr, and that the kids don’t act like little monsters for the entire running time.

When well-paid ad execs Charlie Hinton (Murphy) and Phil (Jeff Garlin) are downsized after an excruciatingly unamusing routine in vegetable costumes meant to promote a breakfast cereal, Charlie and his wife Kim (Regina King) are forced to pull their son Ben out of pricey Chapman Academy. With Kim going back to work, child care duties fall to Charlie, who takes to hanging out at the playground with Phil and his kid.

Brainstorm of opening a daycare center at Charlie’s home generates initial skepticism but instant business among neighborhood moms happy for a few hours off. The first day is a disaster, of course: The clueless guys have no activities planned, Phil refuses to deal with toilet issues even where his own son is concerned, and his all-purpose solution to any behavioral problem is child bribery.In the script’s most ridiculous notion, parents who once craved only the toniest establishment for their children suddenly decide the free-for-all over at the Hinton household is more appealing, they yank their kids out of Chapman (and forfeit the tuition they’ve paid).

Natch, this doesn’t go down well with Chapman’s headmistress, the subtly named Gwyneth Harridan (Anjelica Huston in archest mode), who plots revenge, first by sending over a Child Services inspector (nicely played in efficacious milquetoast mode by Jonathan Katz), then more viciously by sabotaging a Hinton fund raiser. Center’s future is truly put on the line when Charlie is offered a new job and he’s forced to decide what’s really important to him. Penalty for guessing wrong about what he concludes is being forced to watch the film all over again.

Along with presenting numb-skulled caricatures of the differences between traditional and progressive schooling, pic recycles the most cliched and conventional modern notions about child rearing and life priorities, all laid out in blandly impersonal fashion by director Carr. The fate meted out to the villainous Miss Harridan is preposterous even in this buffoonish context.

Murphy plays his high-flying professional man brought down to Earth in relatively subdued fashion, with no nutty edge. Garlin, of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is just OK in the John Goodman/Tom Arnold sidekick role, but if there is ever a need for anyone to play Harvey Weinstein, Garlin may just be the guy. King’s virtual disappearance from the picture after the first reel makes her mother role all but irrelevant, while Steve Zahn is less manic and inventive than usual as a reluctant single friend, recruited to round out the day care staff, who turns out to have an intuitive connection to little kids.

Craft contributions are efficient at best.

Daddy Day Care

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures/Revolution Studios presentation of a Davis Entertainment production. Produced by John Davis, Matt Berenson, Wyck Godfrey. Executive producers, Joe Roth, Dan Kolsrud, Heidi Santelli. Coproducer, Jack Brodsky. Directed by Steve Carr. Screenplay, Geoff Rodkey.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Steven Poster; editor, Christopher Greenbury; music, David Newman; music supervisor, Spring Aspers; production designer, Garreth Stover; art director, Chris Cornwell; set designers, Barbara Mesney, Louisa Bonnie, Natalie Richards, Dawn Snyder; set decorators, Maggie Martin, Chris Spellman; costume designer, Ruth Carter; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), David MacMillan; supervising sound editor, John Joseph Thomas; associate producer, Rufus Gifford; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Juel Bestrop, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at the Beverly Connection, L.A., April 25, 2003. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Charlie Hinton - Eddie Murphy Phil - Jeff Garlin Marvin - Steve Zahn Kim Hinton - Regina King Bruce - Kevin Nealon Mr. Dan Kubitz - Jonathan Katz Peggy - Siobhan Fallon Hogan Crispin's Mom - Lisa Edelstein Jenny - Lacey Chabert Sheila - Laura Kightlinger Kelli - Leila Arcieri Miss Gwyneth Harridan - Anjelica Huston Ben Hinton - Khamani Griffin

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