I have come to accept, if not to understand, that a movie starring Eddie Murphy can be ''Shrek''-tacular or a steaming pile of ''Pluto Nash.'' I have also come to count on family-themed projects as the most nurturing environment for Murphy's pinwheeling energy: When he focuses his abundant but distractable talent in the service of younger viewers, he's capable of satisfying successes like ''Dr. Dolittle,'' ''The Nutty Professor,'' ''Mulan,'' and the giant ''Shrek.'' (When he's squandering his gifts, the result is hell like ''Holy Man.'') My radar is busted, though, by Daddy Day Care, a parent-and-kid-oriented comedy about the adventures of men doing the hard work of mommies, which couldn't be more timely -- or less delightful.
In the same week that a Newsweek cover story identifies a boom in stay-at-home dads -- many of them laid off from their jobs in today's weak economy -- whose wives bring in the paychecks, Murphy plays Charlie Hinton, a hooked-up, well-paid ad guy axed from his agency. Charlie's idea of quality time with his 4-year-old son is a quick toss in the air, but a keen instinct for profit quickly overrides the humility of his parenting inexperience: Reluctantly babysitting while his wife (Regina King) tootles off to her own good job as an attorney, Charlie, along with Phil, a fellow pink-slipped-colleague-with-kid (''Curb Your Enthusiasm'''s appealing lunkhead Jeff Garlin), identifies a niche-market need for an affordable alternative to the pricey, snooty local charm school for tots (run by Anjelica Huston, as a cartoonish gorgon who might take tea with Cruella De Vil). The two business big shots set themselves up as day-care providers. And they learn, of course, that implementing corporate mission statements is easy; implementing nap time is hard.
That smack-on-the-forehead revelation, however, isn't enough to sustain the movie, which settles for cataloging average kiddie antics (that any mother, the movie implies, could handle while multitasking), contrasting this preschool behavior with the dum-dum-hood of educated, affluent men. Only an overgrown, boobish boy himself doesn't know that a kid who gorges on sugar snacks is a kid who bounces off walls. Yet Charlie and Phil -- who surely grew up watching postfeminist, free-to-be-you-and-me children's TV -- master each lesson (Diapers are stinky! Reading stories aloud is good!) as if they were cracking a Harvard Business School case study.
The scrum of child actors (many of whom make their movie debuts here) are good enough at playing clingy, or precocious, or shy, or rude, or shin-kicking, pint-size individuals. The adult actors, though, crawl without security blankets through a playpen script by Geoff Rodkey (who once stayed home with his son while his wife worked!) and Simon Says direction by Steve Carr (''Dr. Dolittle 2''). For the record, the biggest laughs in the family-filled screening I attended went to a kick in the crotch administered by a small child to a large man -- the last refuge, as Dr. Spock and Mr. Rogers knew well, of grown-up moviemakers in need of a time-out.