THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DADDY DAY CARE"

I’m not a big believer in insulting the audience. I have read reviews from other critics in which they imply (or perhaps even openly state) that you have to be a moron to enjoy certain movies. You know what I’m talking about – those critics who take an intellectually superior stance when it comes to reviewing films that are intended to be crowd pleasers. Perhaps it’s just one of the pitfalls of being a critic; when you know the extraordinary power of a brilliant film, you want them all to be masterpieces.

I admit that I have given bad reviews to crowd pleasers in the past, but it’s only because I truly didn’t enjoy them. What it comes down to is energy. Do the performers have it? Do they look like they’re having a good time, or are they merely walking through the movie to cash a paycheck? If it’s the former, I can relax and have a good time. If, on the other hand, it’s the latter, I can be just as critical as anyone, although I try to remain critical of the film itself rather than the people who pay to see it.

This brings me to Daddy Day Care, a pre-programmed crowd pleaser if there ever was one. Already I am hearing some of my critical colleagues griping about how the film appeals to “the lowest common denominator” or how it “panders” to the “unsophisticated” audience. Given the premise (Eddie Murphy opening up a day care center in his home), I automatically knew several things about the picture: It was not going to be an “edgy” comedy. It was going to have a heartwarming message and a lot of scenes with cute children designed to make you say “awww…”. There would be a fair number of potty jokes. The plot would contain absolutely nothing that would surprise me. With those things in mind, I entered the theater and sat down. This was clearly a movie meant to provide nothing more than a harmless, lightweight diversion for 90 minutes. I knew that going in. From this point on, it was only about the energy the filmmakers would (or would not) bring to it. To expect magnificence would have been futile; I was perfectly willing to settle for entertaining.

Eddie Murphy plays Charlie, a hotshot advertising exec who gets fired when the vegetable-based breakfast cereal he is pitching to kids turns out to be a bust. His wife Kim (Regina King) goes back to work, leaving Charlie at home to take care of their young son Ben. Because of the financial difficulties caused by the loss of his job, Charlie and Kim have to pull Ben out of an elite preschool called the Chapman Academy, which is run by the haughty Miss Harridan (Angelica Houston). The academy is one of those places where they try to intellectually advance 4-year olds by teaching them new languages, classic literature, and tai chi.

Left with no money and no suitable placement options for Ben, Charlie stumbles upon a bright idea. Along with fellow fired co-worker Phil (Jeff Garlin), he opens a day care center in his home. Caring for a group of rambunctious preschoolers isn’t as easy as it seems, they soon discover. The kids are sweet, but they are even more hyperactive. They also take Charlie’s attention away from a jealous Ben. When Miss Harridan gets wind that the so-called “Daddy Day Care” is taking children away from her school, she sets out to ruin Charlie and Phil. (Although Angelica Houston is always a welcome presence in my book, this subplot is actually kind of silly and could easily have been shuttered.)

What happens in Daddy Day Care will not come as a surprise to you. I’m sure you will know that Charlie and Phil will eventually turn the program into a success, thereby finding a new kind of job satisfaction. And that Miss Harridan will get her comeuppance. And that Ben will get his father’s full attention at long last. You will know it all long before it ever happens.

If – like me – you are settled into your theater seat just hoping to kick back and relax for a while with a sweet, unassuming comedy, then you won’t care that you know it all. The reason you won’t care is that the movie has the required energy to make an utterly by-the-numbers plot work. Murphy does not get the chance to deliver the kind of bravura performance that he gave in the Nutty Professor movies or Bowfinger, but he seems to be genuinely enjoying the chance to work with his young co-stars. This is a far cry from the type of raucous humor for which Murphy became famous, but he approaches it with enough enthusiasm to sell it.

The movie’s gags are, mostly, predictable: kids getting into things they shouldn’t, the expected potty jokes, etc. Some miss their mark, while others are funny even if they are familiar. I laughed hardest at some of the little off-kilter bits the film tosses in from time to time, like the scene where Charlie tries to read the tykes his “mission statement.” There are also funny supporting performances from Steve Zahn (as a geek who is obsessed with Star Trek and comic books) and Jonathan Katz (as a social worker who ends up performing a puppet show for the kids that boils over with unintended Freudian psychology).

Daddy Day Care is not an ambitious movie, nor an original one. It’s a perfect example of what they call “high concept.” It’s built around one joke, and it’s intended to please a wide audience of kids and families. I think it does what it was meant to do. One of things critics sometimes forget is that general audiences pay to have a good time at the movies. They don’t approach the films analytically; they approach them as a form of entertainment or diversion. That is how I approached Daddy Day Care the afternoon I saw it. If I’d had my thinking cap on too tight, I might have been really annoyed by the blatant shtick the picture oozes with. But on a day when I just wanted to have a few laughs and not think for a while, this was just the ticket.

( out of four)


Daddy Day Care is rated PG for language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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