[23 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The problem with the new RomCom Blended is right there, up front, for everyone to see. It’s name is Adam Sandler, and oddly enough, the issue has little to do with his character or his performance. No, the former SNL star and Happy Billy Madison Gilmore frat fave is actually quite decent as a single father looking for love in all the wrong Hooters. You see, Sandler’s character Jim Friedman manages a local Dick’s Sporting Goods and has been set up on a blind date with a closet organizer named Lauren Reynolds (Drew Barrymore). Smooth operator that he is, he takes this otherwise perky gal to the famous chicken wing establishment, and wouldn’t you know it, everyone there knows his name.
Irritated by this fact, Lauren starts to dissect Jim’s personality flaws. When she can no longer take his inattentive attitude, chauvinist ogling, and ill manners, she throws out the following question cum barb: “It’s no wonder you’re single. What did your wife leave you for?”
His answer? “Cancer.”
You see, Jim’s beloved bride died three years ago, and it’s been hard for him to move on. He likes Hooters because she used to manage one. Leaving him alone with three young girls, Jim may be a louse, but he’s a good natured one. He just doesn’t know how to move on from the loss of his childhood sweetheart. As for Lauren, she too is hurting. Her pre-teen boys are hitting puberty and her cheating ex-husband (Joel McHale) is, at best, an on-again, off-again deadbeat dad. She covers up her loneliness in schedules and routines, posting notes on a monthly calendar to keep appointments, appearances, and athletic events in check.
Both of these characters believe in a mutual mantra about their role as parents. “You have to be there 100% for your kids,” they agree. “Well, maybe 99%. The other 1% is for yourself.” Sounds like the solid premise to a prescient film on families. It is, or better yet was when it was called Parenthood, Ron Howard’s similarly themed comedy from two decades ago. No, the issue here is Sandler. He knows what his demo expects from him, and he knows he has to deliver. So what could have been a really insightful effort centering on the struggles of raising kids on your own and finding a step/half dynamic that works, we end up with Grown Ups style adlibbing, mediocre physical comedy, and one of the most pointless plot gimmicks ever.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you understand what’s being discussed here. Both Jim and Lauren need a way to keep their kids occupied during an upcoming Spring Break. She learns from her best buddy (Wendy McLendon-Covery) that her betrothed, Jim’s boss (Dan Patrick) has planned a romantic vacation to Africa. Naturally, they’ve had a screenplay-mandated falling out so our predestined couple individually jump at the chance to get away from it all. Their mid-movie meet cute, complete with complaints and confirmation that they have NO FEELINGS for each other is mocked and mimicked by the staff at the South Africa resort, including a malapropism prone concierge (Abdoulaye Ngom) and a Ladysmith Black Mambazo backed lounge singer (Terry Crews) whose more Greek Chorus than song stylist.
And then there are the kids, each given their own particular peculiarity and/or eccentricity (almost all based on the lack of a gender identifier in their household). For her, eldest son Brendan (Braxton Beckham) has discovered nudie magazines, and masturbation. Drop down a few years and Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein) is a tough on himself tyke who just wants to learn how to properly play baseball (and have a father who will teach him same) and be a man. On his side, we’ve got the reasonably well-adjusted youngest (Alyvia Alyn), followed by a middle child (Emma Fuhrmann)who talks to her dead mother like she’s still alive and a plain Jane tomboy (Bella Thorne) who longs to break away, get a make-over and shrink from her dad’s domineering desire to see her play sports.
Now there’s enough for a couple of clever movies here, and there are moments of heart and humor in this otherwise sloppy, slack affair. Director Frank Coraci has worked with Sandler several times and he was also responsible for one of the comics most convincing Barrymore pairings, The Wedding Singer. But here, he’s unable to reel Sandler in. For every sequence where a truth comes out about coping the death, we get Shaquille O’Neal exposing and gyrating his oversized belly, or Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe as May/December newlyweds who can’t keep their hands (and tongues) off each other. As Barrymore is brandishing her maternal side, Sandler is riding CG ostriches and belittling a famous cricketer for not knowing American baseball lingo.
It all becomes a battle, not of wits so much as wishes. Indeed, one wishes Blended was better. We can see the fragments of a far more successful family film swimming beneath the adlibs and lame physical shtick…and it’s all Sandler’s fault. He knows what sells. Punch-drunk Love and Funny People don’t. Just Go With It and That’s My Boy do. Within the context of his career, this attempt at addressing the post-modern trend of stepmothers and stepfathers, half-offspring and adopted kin will be chalked up as either a minor success (given his box office trending and its relatively low budget) or a noble failure that the audience adores while critics complained.
As with almost all his movies, it all rides on him. Had Sandler decided to think outside the box a bit and polish up the sitcom-like script by Clare Sera and Ivan Menchell, to toss out the tired and work in more warmth, the experiment would be a success. Now, we have an intriguing effort that still wants to stay deep within Sandler’s cinematic comfort zone. In the end, only the star will be sitting pretty. Everyone else will be confused, or just easily amused.