Long ago, Eddie Murphy grew tired of Eddie Murphy parts: the fast-talking high-jiver, the preening put-on. Even before he began parodying himself in Bowfinger and Showtime and I Spy (in the case of the latter two, perhaps accidentally), he accepted high-paying roles in low-rent movies that neutered and humiliated the character he had sharpened to a fine point before he had even turned 25. He spent most of the '90s in movies -- among them The Distinguished Gentleman, Beverly Hills Cop III, Metro, and Holy Man -- written for "an Eddie Murphy type" he no longer had any interest in playing and audiences had no interest in watching. He couldn't even muster the energy to wink at the camera, so drowsy had he grown at the prospect of being cast as the stand-up cop or cocky con with the braying laugh. So do not lament what he's become -- a 42-year-old Bill Cosby, selling multiplex Coke with a smile while pushing cinematic Pudding Pops down our throats -- because what he had become wasn't doing him any good anyway.
Murphy's a family-movie man now, a reformed R-rated performer playing for the G-rated crowd -- a straight man no longer bent out of shape by Cosby's insistence that Murphy stop using foul language -- a touchy subject in 1987's Raw. Charlie Hinton, the out-of-work cereal marketing man Murphy plays in Daddy Day Care, would be appalled at the things Murphy used to talk about in his stand-up act. Charlie, all khakis and Oxford collars, is a square suburban father who lives in a Better Homes and Gardens photo spread; his best friend and closest colleague is an overweight white guy named Phil (Jeff Garlin, from Curb Your Enthusiasm). Bernie Mac, whose idea of child-rearing is to "bust your head till the white meat shows," wouldn't invite Charlie to play in his poker game.
Daddy Day Care, directed by Dr. Dolittle 2's Steve Carr, updates Mr. Mom without that film's smirky wit and depressed fog; in 1983, Michael Keaton was still early in his career, still sharpening the edges Murphy has chosen to dull. Daddy Day Care is all cute grins and tears of joy, played out on the faces of the dozen multiculti Gap Kids wrangled for the day-care center Charlie and Phil open when they're thrown out of work for not being able to sell vegetable cereal to cocoa-puff kids. Even the film's villain -- Anjelica Huston as Miss Harridan, the Cruella de Vil-like headmistress of a preschool that offers German and SAT prep -- is more annoying and amusing than terrifying. Her idea of sabotage is turning on sprinklers and calling out Child Protective Services, represented by a kindly Jonathan Katz, who works out his own marital issues with Mr. Spock and Lieutenant Uhura dolls. (Daddy Day Care bursts at the seams with Star Trek and Flash comic-book references, embodied by Steve Zahn as the cuddly childcare worker who puts on Wrath of Khan puppet shows. "I read Dr. Spock," he explains. "It's not about Star Trek.")
The movie gets its laughs from the endearing kids, who fart and squeal and squirm (and, in one case, speak Klingon) enough to wear down your defenses, and from Garlin. Murphy, so happily neutered now, is little more than the eye at the center of the storm that at first destroys his lovely home -- literally, not figuratively. Murphy's wife, played by Regina King, returns to work as an attorney and disappears for long stretches. Never does it cause friction in the household, because the movie doesn't take place in the real world, but in a Toys R Us fantasyland where Cheap Trick plays a benefit concert for a neighborhood preschool. King's like the wife in Field of Dreams: Never does she scold or even question her husband for his flights of whimsy. She just nods her head and hopes the checkbook has enough left in it to pay the mortgage.
Those craving the Murphy of old will have to make do with TNT's nights of "new classics." This is his métier now: the cuddly patriarch, not the crass kid. He has exorcised his inner Buddy Love and is now more comfortable as a leaner Sherman Klump, or as Dr. Dolittle, doing less and less to offend with each outing. He seemed to be saying as much even in an "adult" comedy such as Bowfinger, in which he was far more contented as Jif, delivering Groucho Marx lines without even the wink and waggle. In that film he also played Kit, the paranoid action hero with Scientology ties, as though he were his and our worst nightmare come true -- a hysterical, whimpering mess. But he inhabited Jif as a sweet, innocent child, almost as though he were delighted to shed the cynicism and get down to the sweet, chewy center. Or day-care center, in this case.