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, the subject of a vitriolic screed 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 and whose 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, who seems to think tending to children is the same as managing Larry David (and perhaps it is). 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, but never 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 is 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 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 found himself more comfortable as a leaner Sherman Klump; he's now Dr. Dolittle, doing less and less to offend with each outing. He seemed to be saying as much even in an "adult" comedy like Bowfinger, in which he was far more contented as Jif, delivering Groucho Marx lines -- he didn't mind cutting his hair for a role, but thought it better if someone else did it for him -- without even the wink and waggle. He played the same movie's Kit, the paranoid action hero with none-too-subtle Scientologist ties, as though he were his and our worst nightmare come true: a hysterical, whimpering mess. But he inhabited Jif like 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.