[25 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Adam Sandler has clearly learned his lesson. After a series of so-called genre jumping experiments, titles that balanced straight ahead drama (Reign Over Me) with non-PC pratfalls (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), kids films (Bedtime Stories) to oddball combinations of the serious and the stupid (Funny People), he’s decided to go back to what he - arguably - does best…and he’s brought along four buddies for the crude comedy hi-jinx ride. Indeed, with a veteran cast that includes Chris Rock, Kevin James, Rob Schneider, and David Spade, you’d expect Grown Ups to be filled with the kind of groin-level gagging the big screen vet is famous for - and you’d be right. But there is an autopilot element at play, a sense of not even trying that will remove some of the spark from this otherwise inoffensive group effort.
Back thirty years ago, Lenny Feder (Sandler) and his fellow teammates Eric Lamonsoff (James), Kurt McKenzie (Rock), Marcus Higgins (Spade), and Robert Hilliard (Schneider) won the city basketball championship under the tutelage of Coach Bobby ‘Buzzer’ Ferdinando (Blake Clark). Now middle aged, they reunite for the Fourth of July weekend when their beloved ex-mentor passes away. A lot has changed in three decades. Lenny is a high powered agent with a fashion designer wife (Salma Hayek) and three spoiled kids. Kurt is a house husband with a domineering spouse (Maya Rudolph) and a buttinski mother-in-law. Eric is a struggling family man with a better half (Maria Bello) who insists upon still breast feeding their four year old son, while Rob has married a much older woman (Joyce Van Patton). Only Marcus remains the same lamentable ladies man from his youth.
Thus we have a set-up for the standard flummoxed family/old friends punchlines, including snotty offspring, fat cracks, an alarming level of ageism, gratuitous boob milking, male menopause, and a brazen disregard for elements like plot logic, complex characterization, or intelligence. Grown Ups is a comedy so obvious it can be accused of barely making an effort. All of its wit is dictated by its basic set-ups. Rock’s Kurt is henpecked - thus you have his entire comic arc. Schneider likes his women old and decrepit - as a result, that’s the majority of the merriment aimed at his direction (that and his “Filipino Elvis” fashion sense, including toupee). In fact, most of Grown Ups feels like Sandler and his pals sitting around, shooting the breeze - except, in this case, the wind coming from their direction is tired and redundant. James is fat and out of shape, Spade won’t act his age, Sandler wants to hide his success…you get the idea.
Even worse, the comic’s regular right hand man behind the lens, Dennis Dugan, has yet to learn the value of building to a laugh. For him, it’s been over two decades of sledgehammer timing and he’s not about to change now. When pratfalls occur, they have the impact of a tired tsunami. When putdowns are delivered, the camera seems to crash into the viewer, demanding they snicker at the often unfunny slight. Granted, it would be almost impossible for Sandler, Rock, James, Spade, and Schneider to sit in a room for 100 minutes and not occasionally produce a chuckle, but that appears to be Grown Ups entire raison d’etra. Everything else, the That Champion Season styling, the various spousal spats, the concerning behavior of anyone under 12, is tossed aside so that these former first rung stand-ups can slam each other in highly uneven ways.
Of course, this begs the question as to why the artist formerly known as The Stud Boy and his crew didn’t simply set up some kind of cable TV special and spend an hour and a half snarking on each other. Did we really need the pointless sight gags (including one involving James’ girth, waterskies, and a motorboat, as well as two - count them, two - blue urine waterpark jibes), the “rematch” between Sandler and a few more of his brickwall buddies (including Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows, and the mandatory gratuitous Steve Buscemi cameo) or the random moments of non-erotic, or interesting, male bonding. If this is supposed to be a cinematic vacation for Sandler and his cohorts, no problem. Have fun. Just don’t serve it up as anything other than that and you won’t be accused of countermanding expectations. And don’t expect an audience to come along for the ride.
Yet there is a genial quality to the camaraderie, a sense of fun and familiar history that comes cascading off the screen. Even when they aren’t saying something sidesplitting, Sandler and the gang sell us on their mutual admiration. That Dugan then does double duty to make sure each star gets their moment - including a shot of Spade’s naked butt and Hayek in a guy girding one piece bathing suit - signals the biggest problem with such a scope. Since you have five leading men, at least three main actresses, dozens of deserving bit parts and a passable storyline to support it all, it takes a deft juggler to make it all work - and last time anyone checked, the figure manning the production hasn’t graduated beyond the occasional children’s party.
Because it represents Sandler back “being Sandler” (although older and paunchier), because it sees several comic voices merging to provide a real hit or miss bit of levity, because it taps directly into the notion of old friendships and wistful - if often worthless - nostalgia, Grown Ups has the potential of connecting with its intended, uncomplicated crowd. It will speak to them in single syllables and ten cent terms instead of overwhelming them with kitsch or high concept complexity. In a career that has lasted several years longer than many in his position, Adam Sandler has sectioned out a specific kind of comedy - pseudo-slacker? Failed frat boy? You call it - and now he apparently wants to move on and mature (if only a little). With this inconsistent group effort, he proves he still has a way to go.