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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003
Straight and narrow
By KAORI SHOJI
Things happen and people change, more often in the movie world. Johnny Depp, whose deliciously fatigued, artistic aura complemented his lifestyle of substance abuse and trashing hotel rooms, has become a devoted father of two. The former Terminator and Commando, whose most successful performances usually involved gunning down a small army of people, is now governor of California.
Such metamorphoses, however, are easier to take than the current positioning of Eddie Murphy. His subversive gags and foul one-liners pushed the envelope of '80s American humor, but now he's turned into this smooth custodian of G-rated films. The sweat-shirted, working class terror who once scrambled around Beverly Hills ("Beverly Hills Cop") now works primarily with animals ("Dr. Doolittle") and, in his latest film, pre-toilet-trained children. "Daddy Day Care" is the cuddly title. Twenty years ago, if someone had gone up to Murphy and told him this is what he would be doing in 2003, that person would have gotten an earful of horse laughter and a curse or three.
But perhaps this is what middle age is all about the mellowing of attitude, the urge to nurture and protect. Still, the question is whether Murphy had to go this far. Didn't he, for example, attempt to argue some points with director Steve Carr? (Like, refuse to wear a giant broccoli suit and sing to the little kids.) There's scarce evidence in the movie to indicate that Murphy did anything other than dutifully stick to directions, go back to his trailer and retire with a good book. Consequently, the children who go and see "Daddy Day Care" with their parents (it's hard to imagine adults going on their own) will inevitably link Murphy to the image of a sucker daddy you know, the kind of dad who lets them do whatever they want and at the end of the day gives them big hugs and candy. It's enough to make you want to stand up in the middle of the theater and set the little buggers straight: No, no, no! This is not what Eddie Murphy is supposed to be all about!
Murphy stars as Charlie Hinton, a former ad exec who used to market sugar-free breakfast cereals until the company closed down his department (it's tough selling health foods to kids). Charlie is fired, along with buddy Phil (Jeff Garlin). Charlie is now forced to stay at home while his wife, Kim (Regina King), returns to work as a lawyer, and with their income suddenly slashed they can no longer afford to send their 4-year-old son, Ben (Khamani Griffin), to the prestigious local day-care center Chapman Academy, run by a Miss Harridan (Anjelica Huston).
Piqued, Charlie thinks of an alternate solution: start his own day-care center with Phil and Star Trek otaku Marvin (Steve Zahn), who used to work in their company mail room. Marvin has a way with kids when a 3-year-old boy refuses to speak anything but gibberish, Marvin immediately senses the kid is speaking Klingon. Other children come equipped with the usual problems: There's an allergy-prone 3-year-old, a weepy boy with separation anxiety and another who won't consent to wearing anything but a Superman costume
The combination of Murphy and this motley crew has potential, but the film seems concerned only with piling on the gags and drawing on the most banal sentiments. Murphy's wise-cracking is submerged under the sugar-coated exterior of the decent, caring dad who invariably clicks with kids and turns into a champion of fun, affordable day-care. The opposition, of course, is Miss Harridan and her elitist establishment, which teaches kids to count in foreign languages and coaches Scholastic Aptitude Test problems to pre-schoolers. But the movie's equation that Miss Harridan's place is evil while Charlie's chaotic, anarchic operation is a bastion of liberal democracy is just plain silly and misinformed. As any parent/babysitter would tell you, you can't be with kids day after day without enforcing some sort of discipline and setting down rules.
Arguments like this, however, are pointless in the face of the weary farce that is "Daddy Day Care." Director Carr is probably out to please kids, but even small children will zero in on the fact that a lot of the jokes just don't work. Phil, for example, is the fat guy who keeps gorging on ice cream while spewing profanities, and his poop jokes fall with a big splat. And an actress as intensely charismatic as Anjelica Huston is wasted on the witch-bitch Miss Harridan (as if Hollywood can't come up with anything else for her than these two-dimensional roles of which she's done more than her fair share). She and Charlie have a climactic showdown but, as with everything that precedes it, the slapstick scenes are predictably tiresome, and rob Huston of the last shreds of dignity.
Is this what Hollywood has in store for their talent pool of crazy 'n' cool, or is this what they mean by progress?