Bedtime Stories

2008-12-25 (General release)

Rob Schneider’s appearance in Adam Sandler’s new movie is inevitable, of course. It’s a running gag now that he’ll show up in each of these man-boy sagas, playing a broadly offensive stereotype who’s less outrageous than predictable. In Bedtime Stories, he plays two.

The first is an American Indian, complete with big rubber nose, “redskin” face makeup, and moccasins. And he’s not just any Indian. He’s a used-horse-dealing Indian on scene to service Sandler’s Skeeter, here a cowboy in the bedtime fantasy he’s spinning with the help of his young niece and nephew, Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) and Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit). While the children listen with eyes wide, in the fantasy scene, the Indian gives Skeeter a giant dyed-red steed named Ferrari “for free!”, as the jokesters repeat emphatically, their voices lifted in joyous cacophony.

For Skeeter, a hapless hotel maintenance worker, the idea of a free Ferrari is especially thrilling. Not only is it a car he covets, but he also believes that what happens in the bedtime stories he’s sharing with the kids happen in real life the next day. This isn’t exactly the case — he’s not living in a magical museum, for instance — but the movie engineers events so Skeeter, an imaginative, big-hearted and fairly trusting fellow, can think the stories are shaping his experience. Just so, he believes that when Injun Rob hands him a horse named Ferrari, a real-life encounter will deliver the goods. This sets up for Schneider’s next appearance, sans putty nose and feathers, outside a Ferrari showroom. Skeeter can hardly contain himself at the sight of non-Injun Rob, and begins chattering on about the car. Schneider’s stereotype here is the grubby street thief, his clothes in tatters and his eyes shifty. He listens to Skeeter for a couple of beats, then hightails if down the sidewalk, cackling and waving his victim’s wallet over his head.

While these two scenes take up just three or four minutes of screen time, they feel like they take 10, exemplifying the movie’s lumbering movement, its tendency to repeat plot points and jokes, to meander from scene to scene, and then seem to forget where it was headed (this is especially the case when the forward motion is waylaid — as it is regularly — by a hamster with animated bug-eyes, a singularly unfunny effect). It might be argued that this reflects the protagonist’s slow-moving, if genial, internal rhythms. This affect makes his surly older sister, Wendy (Courteney Cox), impatient with him. After avoiding contact with him for four years, she only asks him to look after her kids for the week because she’s desperate — she’s lost her job and needs to go out of town to interview for a new position as a school principal. (The simplistic brother-sister opposition raises more than a few questions, like how come she thinks he’s a better storyteller than she is and why is he the anointed one to introduce these kiddies to cookies and ketchup, but for now, suffice it to say that the uncle is enchanting the children with his silly voices.)

Skeeter’s affect also annoys — at least initially — his designated love object, Wendy’s best friend Jill (Keri Russell — and really, you have to wonder what her agent had in mind when he or she handed her this script). She’s a teacher and a night school student, which suggests she’s not only bright but also ambitious; for some reason, Skeeter’s lack of motivation grows on her. (Actually, that some reason is the same reason in every Sandler rom-com: no matter his physical clumsiness, perpetual adolescence, or fundamental incuriosity, he is inexplicably, movie-magically charming to every girl from Jessica Biel to Winona Ryder; he does not, in this instance, charm Aisha Tyler, whose role here remains an utter mystery.)

Not quite likewise, Skeeter is also oddly appealing to the movie’s PG-rated vamp, Violet Nottingham (Teresa Palmer), the Paris-like daughter of his wealthy employer, Barry (Richard Griffiths). Her interest in Skeeter is at least partly explained by the contrast he provides next to her truly hideous fianc√©, Kendall (Guy Pearce, who just needs a new agent). When Skeeter’s not telling stories with the kiddies, he’s competing with Kendall for the chance to manage Barry’s hotel — a hotel that Skeeter’s dad (Jonathan Pryce) once owned and loved, but ran into the ground because he was, as he puts it, “a very bad businessman.”

If Skeeter wants anything besides that red Ferrari, it may be that he wants to redeem his dad’s failure. Perhaps he wants to teach his niece and nephew to enjoy their childhoods, without that creepy hamster. Then again, he might be seeking a romance with Jill or a reunion with Wendy. Or maybe he is himself just a pause, as Sandler’s en route to Schneider’s next gig.

RATING 2 / 10