Steve Zahn is fearless. No matter what the role — whether buddied up with Martin Lawrence, Drew Barrymore, Jack Black, or Stuart Little — he comes with fierce, ungainly determination. In Steve Carr’s second Eddie Murphy movie (the first being 2001’s Dr. Dolittle 2), Zahn again delivers, playing Marvin, a hardcore Trekker (if that isn’t redundant) whose fluency in Klingon becomes a crucial plot point.
Or, it would be crucial if there were a plot in evidence. In truth, Daddy Day Care demonstrates precious little interest in storyline, character, or originality. Instead, it cruises along without imagination or ambition, a star vehicle of the dreariest sort. The film’s essential purpose, aside from giving Zahn a few minutes to cavort with four-year-olds (which he does with admirable commitment), appears to be the further grinding of Murphy’s career into the ground where it’s been increasingly stuck since 1996’s Nutty Professor. The frustrating part is this: while it’s obvious that Eddie Murphy wants to please — his fans, his employers, his kids — he’s consistently finding the most mundane ways to do it.
The occasion for this particular excavation is (probably not ironically) the career crisis of a well-intentioned workaholic named Charlie Hinton (Murphy). The film spends some time underlining Charlie’s desperation, as he’s assigned to sell Veggie-Os breakfast cereal to children who, naturally, hate the very concept like poison. (It is at this point that Marvin, the office mail boy, makes his entrance, when Charlie conscripts him to play a carrot for irritated children being served Veggie-Os; Marvin winces and flaps his arms, then collapses under the weight of the big orange costume.) Charlie’s defeat here is inevitable, and made twice as terrible by the fact that he’s trumped by a colleague (Kevin Nealon) selling Chocolaty Chocolate Balls.
And so, Charlie loses his “J-O-B,” as he puts it to his wife Kim (Regina King, so wonderful and so in need of a real part, not the wife or the girlfriend), to hide his crisis in front of their four-year-old, Ben (Khamani Griffin). Though he’s confident that he’ll find another, he doesn’t, of course, because this is a movie called Daddy Day Care. Instead, he spends Mr. Mom-ish time with little Ben, time that makes Charlie squirm and complain because he’s a go-getter and babysitting is not getting him anywhere.
And then, bonk!, one of the moms at the park mentions that someone should open a daycare center to compete with the most successful one in town, run by one Miss Harridan (Anjelica Huston). This idea leads to repetitions of routines already worn out by Kindergarten Cop. And doesn’t that sound like the perfect solution to all Charlie’s woes?
In order that Charlie can play sort-of straight man, he has a comic-reliefy pal, Phil (Jeff Garlin), also fired by the same ridiculous company, and also staying home with his young son Max (Max Burkholder). Phil’s comedy covers two bases: playing “gee-how-funny” songs on his guitar (“Rhinestone Cowboy,” Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”), and being frantically incapable when it comes to children. Oh, the hilarity when it’s revealed that he can’t even potty-train his own son! (“I know, I know,” he mutters when Charlie says he’ll look after Max in the bathroom. “I gotta work it out.”)
Charlie’s interest in his short-term project (he plans to return to real man’s work when he can) is redoubled when he learns that uptight schoolmarm Miss Harridan has it in for him. When her enrollment numbers drop (because Charlie’s place offers superior childcare!), she sends her minion (poor Lacey Chabert) to cause trouble for those pesky daddys, whereupon said minion looks dramatically pained, as if you need to be reminded that Miss Harridan is “bad.”
Miss Harridan is a great believer in training children like they’re mini-hers, rather than indulging their childish interests. Where professional salesman Charlie holds focus groups with his kids to find out what they like (comic books, dolphins, The Three Stooges), she insists (hissing, incidentally), “Children don’t know what they want!” Yes, and you are the wicked witch. Got that.
Simplistic characterization is the least of Daddy Day Care‘s problems: it’s got a cast full of three- and four-year-olds, whose major J-O-B is to show up and look adorable, which they do beautifully. But the rest of what goes on is rather stymied at that same point. Murphy, King, and Huston are all left reacting in adorable, big-eyed fashion to whatever happens around them (“I ain’t gonna front,” confesses Charlie, enraptured, “Those little crumb-snatchers got under my skin”). This makes for too many scenes (and far too many montages) that seem in slow motion, even though they involve kids moving at something approximating warp-speed.
Which brings me back to Steve Zahn, the only actor on screen who looks appropriately uncomfortable. With all the other adults performing as if they’re in a real movie, Zahn’s contortions, so patently wacky and urgently disorderly, suggest that he’s the only one to notice he’s landed on the planet Monotony.