It’s hard to tear down a movie as well-intentioned as “Grown Ups.”
The new Adam Sandler comedy features the famous funnyman starring alongside Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James and consists largely of the four men sitting around trading wisecracks and occasionally participating in a plot that seems to wander in off the streets from time to time. It’s obvious Sandler has a camaraderie with these men—who have starred in films produced by Sandler’s “Happy Madison Productions” and most of them worked with him on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-90s. The film gives the four the opportunity to hang out, trade some jokes and make a quick buck. If George Clooney and Brad Pitt were able to chill and call it “Ocean’s 12,” why can’t Sandler and his pals do the same thing with “Grown Ups”?
Of course, “Ocean’s 12” was a mess. And while “Grown Ups” is nowhere near as pretentious or self-satisfied as that film, an amazingly lazy script and some flat direction by Dennis Dugan keep the comedy from being the riot some might expect from this ensemble.
The characters all have names, but the comedians are all playing so closely to their established types that for purposes of this review we’ll just call them by their real names. Sandler’s character is a Hollywood agent, called back to his hometown after the death of his fifth grade basketball coach. He tries to hide his massive wealth, spoiled kids and nanny from his friends—who include James, with a wife (Maria Bello) who still breastfeeds her 4-year-old son; Spade, as a sarcastic ladies man; Schneider, as a sensitive hippy married to a septuagenarian and Rock, who plays Mr. Mom to his pregnant wife (Maya Rudolph).
The characters spend the weekend at the lake house where they grew up and, occasionally, a story thread emerges to distract us, although Dugan seems quick to shoo it away to allow for more shots of the boys sitting around trading quips. There are scenes of Sandler’s fashion designer wife (Salma Hayek) being prissy and moody, hints that Rock may feel unappreciated and belittled by his wife, suggestions that James may feel his wife is babying his children and the undercurrent that Spade is…well, suffering from being a David Spade character. But each of these subplots is dashed off with a shrug of the shoulders or a quick “I forgive you.” Even a big basketball rematch that seems to be given so much weight early in the film is never mentioned again until the film’s final scenes, where the movie grinds to a halt to remind us that James is out of shape and Sandler has game. There’s no tension or character to carry the plot and the film seems to shift about, genially yet befuddled, as if Sandler and Company thought it would be a great idea to get the gang together for a movie and then not only rolled camera without a script but edited that way as well.
And maybe that’s what happened. Given Sandler’s credit as a co-producer and co-writer, it’s obvious he liked the premise. And with the many shots of him talking to his buddies, it’s apparent he wanted to do a film with his old gang. Even his character—a Hollywood success story who just wants to be around “real people” again—could conceivably be the big movie star trying to prove he’s just a regular guy.
And for what it’s worth, Sandler is the film’s strongest part. One of the subplots that actually works deals with Sandler trying to teach his sons how to use their imagination, play outside and become normal kids. There are a few minutes early in the film where Sandler really seems to have something to say about this and, were the film edited to focus on Sandler and his family, I could see an entertaining and somewhat meaningful family comedy. It helps that Sandler is one of the most likable comedians in Hollywood. He’s displayed real acting chops in “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Reign Over Me” and last year’s “Funny People”. If he wants to dip his toes back into the old waters every once in awhile, he has that right and, to his credit, I don’t think he ever coasts through a film.
The rest of the gang succeeds based on your tolerance for the comedians behind the roles. I’ve always found Kevin James to have a genuinely funny, likable comedic presence and, while I don’t think Rock is much of an actor, he’s able to sell a punch line when he needs to. Spade’s sarcastic shtick grew old without Chris Farley’s warmth to balance him out, and while he gets a few nice one-liners, his boozy party animal grows old quick. Schneider gets shot in the foot with an arrow—and seeing him in pain should tell you how I normally feel about Schneider.
The women are woefully underused here, particularly the charming Bello and the always wonderful Rudolph. A scene at a water park in which the women try to lure in a cute lifeguard has an energy to it that the rest of the film lacks and, for a moment, I wanted to see the movie from these women’s perspective. Regular Sandler cohorts Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows and Steve Buscemi show up in cameos to varying success—Meadows is utterly wasted, although an extended sequence with Buscemi is a body cast had me giggling a bit.
The film is not without its pleasures. As I said, I think Sandler’s character has a storyline that’s refreshing in this area of constantly-texting children. There’s a genuine feeling of goodwill to the film—it’s apparent everyone in the cast had a great time making this movie and that feeling is contagious. While there’s nothing uproarious in the dialogue, Sandler and his buddies have a genuine chemistry and it’s a bit fun to see them wisecrack and poke fun at each other without resorting to annoying voices and cloying characters. Some of the film’s bigger gags—a dog with no vocal chords, blue dye in a swimming pool—work better than others (a farting grandma? Really?), but that’s par for the course in these comedies. And I do have to admit that it was nice to make it through a comedy that didn’t feature the f-word every five seconds or graphic sex references the entire way through.
There’s a good movie somewhere in “Grown Ups.” If Dugan and Sandler had focused the script and been a little more judicious in the editing process, I think it could have been a fairly successful family comedy. Instead, it’s a scattershot comedy suffering from a directionless script and a director with no other directive than to “point the camera at the funny people.” It’s far from the worst thing that those involved with the movie have ever done, but it’s not going to be the film they’re known for, either.
But I’m glad Sandler was able to play with his friends for a bit. Now maybe he can actually grow up and get back to the good, serious acting he puts on display from time to time.
Originally published in the June 27 edition of The Source.