Low Brow - and Loving It!: 'That's My Boy'

When your mouth is not making noises similar to laughter, it will be dragging along the theater floor in stunned disbelief.

That's My Boy

Director: Sean Anders
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester, Vigo Ventimiglia, Luenell
Rated: R
Studio: Columbia Picture
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-06-15 (General release)
UK date: 2012-06-15 (General release)

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.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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