Strangely sadistic when it should be sweeter, Daddy Day Care nevertheless has merit for inspiring Eddie Murphy to at least try to care about being a comedian.

The brash, outspoken Murphy that America came to know and love has been missing and presumed dead since about 1996. But his restraint here as a reactionary straight man is at least commendable, as are a handful of profanity-free zingers. 

It’s too bad, then, that his best work in some time is wasted on a movie so scattershot with laughs that it condemns him to a seventh straight year without a truly recommendable comedy.

That it achieves any sort of momentum at all is a true shocker, considering the weird opening scene set to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking On Sunshine.” The song’s not the problem. It’s a great song. You just don’t expect it to stop so you can hear a toddler tinkling at full volume.

Said toddler is Ben Hinton (Khamani Griffin), who typically stays home with his mom (Regina King) while devoted-to-work dad Charlie (Murphy) is marketing health foods to children. When his division is shut down, Charlie concocts the idea that he and fired partner Phil (Jeff Garlin) can start a day-care service, allowing him to spend more time with Ben and get him to make friends.

At first, the children run wild all over them. But eventually, they warm up to the job just as icy cold competitor Mrs. Harridan (Angelica Huston) tries every mean trick she has to shut them down. If Huston had a mustache, she’d certainly be twirling it.

Daddy Day Care occasionally has a sweet and funny, albeit predictable, rhythm to it, namely when gifted comic actor Steve Zahn enters the picture as the third Daddy Day Care employee. His bumbling but big-hearted Marvin is good with the kids and good for the movie. As for the kids, most of them are prototypically precocious but mostly charming.

Still, whenever it seems like the film has its heart in the right place, it goes for crude slapstick that just doesn’t work. Garlin, so good on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, isn’t just the always-eating fat guy who licks food off his tie. He’s the fat guy who gets stuck in playground equipment and attacked by bees, spiders and kids who, for no particular reason, like to kick his testicles.

Perhaps the best (or worst) example of the mismatched approaches is in the film’s ending. Closing on the usual good lesson learned speech Murphy gives would be all fine and cute. But five unnecessary minutes of evil-character comeuppance slapstick follow.

It involves a swarm of bees, perhaps the same ones who attacked poor Phil. Murphy has kept his swelled ego in check here, but being too naughty when it should be nice stings the movie.