Adam Sandler’s company, Happy Madison, has made a cottage industry of creating lackluster film vehicles for Saturday Night Live stars less popular than himself. Regardless of its success or failure in other areas, The Benchwarmers can claim the intelligence of combining resources. It stars Rob Schneider and David Spade, plus Jon Lovitz, and up-and-comer Jon Heder. I guess Dana Carvey was busy.
Gus (Schneider), Richie (Spade), and Clark (Heder) are grown-up nerds who still feel the effects of childhood bullying. Mel (Lovitz) is another nerd, but a rich one; he bankrolls a Little League tournament, where the three-man team will compete against the meanest kids in the state, the prize being a new baseball stadium (and, Mel hopes, nerd empowerment).
In the tradition of Sandler’s starring projects, this set-up, in its threadbare simplicity, is kind of brilliant: an 80-minute hybrid of The Bad News Bears and Revenge of the Nerds. The choice to rip off two popular comedies rather than one is consistent with the casting’s multitasking. As a (sort of) second-tier all-star team, it (sort of) works: the film is amusing (if far from hilarious), and the cinematic benchwarmers half-ass their way across the finish line.
Credit teamwork for that. On their own, neither Schneider nor Spade can carry a film. Putting them together recalls their roles on SNL, where they could contribute to the greater good with funny five-minute bits. Here, Schneider is something of a straight man, as Gus must show some skill at sports, in order for the tournament idea to work. A more inspired movie might’ve found a deeper, more elemental nerdiness for Gus (he’s not so much nerdy as he is a nerd sympathizer), but it’s a relief not to see Deuce Bigalow on the baseball diamond.
Schneider takes one for the team, allowing Heder to do his spaz act, Spade to quip away, and Lovitz to provide welcome side-ham as a millionaire who spends his money on vehicles from Knight Rider and Batman. Unlike many broad comedies, The Benchwarmers makes its up-with-dorks sentiment convincing, in part because it features comedians who will probably never run with the Eddie Murphys or Will Ferrells of the world (Tim Meadows and Craig Kilborn make appearances).
This is not to say that The Benchwarmers is a triumph; it features a typically Sandlerian mix of the crude, the obvious, and the semi-sweet, with varied effects. I can’t deny that the continuous slapstick made me chuckle (Heder is a strong physical comedian), any easier than I can excuse flashes of homophobia in the midst of the inclusive message. One of the mean coaches (played by former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury) turns out to be gay, and the joke, sadly, seems to be not the contrast between his jock-ish insults and his secret-minority status, but the fact that he’s gay at all.
The spirit of this ramshackle comedy is generally more silly than cruel, and retooling the Sandler formula for a younger audience makes creative sense. Judging from last weekend’s box office (a strong $20 million), it makes financial sense, too. But it’s a shame that tee-heeing at gayness couldn’t be jettisoned for the kids, rather than re-emphasized. The nerd trio is supposed to be sticking up for misfits everywhere.