[13 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For the last few years, Adam Sandler has placed his career on paycheck-cashing cruise control. He’s taken the opportunity to play with his famous friends (Grown Ups), soil an Oscar winning property (his awful Cactus Flower remake, Just Go With It) and explore his drag/feminine side with one of the worst movies of all time (the horrendous Jack and Jill). Toss in his often failed experiments into “legitimacy” (Reign Over Me, Funny People) and you can almost see his once vital celebrity bankability slowly spiraling down the drain. So what do you do when you’re down, desperate, and up against a summer slate so chock full of anticipated efforts that you’re afraid your farce will get lost in the shuffle. You create That’s My Boy, a comedy so completely lowbrow and lewd that it makes Judd Apatow’s oeuvre look like Dr. Seuss by comparison.
Listen, any movie that begins by championing an inappropriate student/teacher relationship is not out to set the benchmark for good taste. Instead, we meet a young Donny Berger (eventually, Sandler) as he has a sordid sexual fling with his smoking hot Math instructor. Fast forward a few weeks and she’s pregnant and going to jail. Our pint sized Casanova, on the other hand, has become a local (and national) hero and has traded his notoriety for an extended 15 minutes of fame…and some minor fortune. Unfortunately, the court saddles him with taking care of his son, who Donny names Han Solo (Andy Samberg).
Years later, the young boy has left home, changed his name, and grown into a massive wimp. Working for a sleazy tycoon (Tony Orlando) and marrying a social climbing harpy (Leighton Meester), he seems destined to be miserable. Donny, on the other hand, is in Dutch with the IRS. If he doesn’t get $43,000 in three days, he will go to prison. So he sets up an ambush TV reunion between his son and the still incarcerated mother. Now all Donny has to do is head to Cape Cod, convince his boy that he’s not a complete failure, and find a way to get him to the penitentiary in time for the show. Naturally, things don’t work out quite the way anyone planned.
For the first 20 minutes or so, That’s My Boy has a hard time connecting. Since we live in an era when cases of child abuse and sexualization have become mainstream praiah talking points, celebrating such a relationship - even for obvious laughs - is a bit much. Call it PC or a lack of legitimate provocation, but the concept seems built solely to explain the mere 12 year difference in age between Sandler and Samberg. Oddly, since the former is so good at playing aging debauchery, the plot premise is unnecessary. Even with a mere decade plus between them, Sadler comes across as wise and weary while Samberg pulls off passive and plebian with ease. There will be those in the audience cheering along with the male characters in the film once Donny’s affair is revealed. Others will have to wait until the wedding plans to find the right pace.
...and even then, there are issues. The bride’s family is a cliched collection of comedy conventions. The brother is a military badass who takes everything way too soldier seriously. Dad is a crusty old disconnected coot with a foul mouth while Mom suffers from several obvious frustrations. We then get the leering boss, the horny old lady, and the ineffectual friend/best man. Until Sandler shows up to literally spew all over them, we cringe at the stereotypes. Luckily, our lead seems to inspire everyone, including Orlando, who appears happy to say almost anything as long as it’s disgustingly dirty. Then the cameos/casting kicks in, and That’s My Boy finds its appropriate pace.
Indeed, it’s hard to discuss this movie without spoiling some of these surprises. For example, a very famous fixture of the early ‘90s shows up as Sandler’s buddy and Samberg’s “Uncle.” The character’s co-worker is also a famous face from the ‘80s. Donny’s lawyer will be recognizable to those with an invested interest in NYC football, while the last act reveal of the teacher today makes for one of the movie’s most memorable moments. Along the way, other recognizable faces from the Sandler stable show up, many given limited screen time and director Sean Anders (Sex Drive) does his best to balance out the needs of the narrative with such stunt casting.
But it’s the outrageous level of crud, crass gags that will either win you over or send you shrieking from the theater. Nothing is left out of the bawdy bodily fluid mix. Urine is a punchline while masturbation and ejaculation are ever-present. Donny is never seen without a beer, and as the story moves along, we are introduced to more and more outrageous behavior. Of course, our haggard hero is going to see through the bride’s side of the family and reveal their most dark and disturbing secrets. What he uncovers, however, pushes the very limits of an R-rated comedy. If Kevin Smith can get an NC-17 for merely talking about subjects like this, That’s My Boy almost warrants a XXX. When your mouth is not making noises similar to laughter, it will be dragging along the theater floor in stunned disbelief.
Yet the gauge to any humor is whether or not it tickles your fragile funny bone, and in this regard, That’s My Boy succeeds. It’s a gangly guilty pleasure experience that makes you feel foul for enjoying its obvious, out of control bravado. Sandler is terrific as the tacky center of attention and even with a bloated belly and bad mat of monkey fur hair-do, he’s winning. Yes, some of the jokes fall very flat indeed and there’s more F-bombs than in a Scorsese gangster flick, but the end result is genuine. Indeed, Sandler, more than anyone, has been guilty of turning the big screen comedy into a premise with no pay-off. That’s My Boy promises things you hope it won’t deliver. When it does, you’ll be ashamed of your reaction, but happy that Sandler has returned to his randy roots.