Reviewed by James Owen
Adam Sandler’s collaborations with “Grown Ups” director Dennis Dugan chart the star’s devolution. Over a decade and a half, the emotionally-broken man-child of Dugan’s “Happy Gilmore” has tried to turn his unhinged impulses into something redeeming. Enter the relatively socially conscious Sandler movies, beginning with Dugan’s “Big Daddy”. Ultimately, neither did much—except tap into the dark fantasy of emasculated young men raised with a sense of entitlement, who learn they have no control of the real world. Who wouldn’t want to smash a golf cart or paralyze a few roller bladers? Personal mayhem is AWESOME when it results in a happy ending! This Oedipal dreck was directed at, and ultimately consumed by, Gen X frat boys. Guilty as charged.
Later, Sandler and Dugan tried to grow up by tackling complex social issues. The result was the let downs of “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”. These films disappointed because they were, especially for Adam Sandler, rather intriguing ideas. Sandler, a Republican who donated to Rudi Giuliani’s campaign, tried to square the latent homophobia of his man-child movies with a pro gay marriage message. In “Zohan,” Dugan and Sandler (who is Jewish) plant a Zionist who escaped the violence of the Holy Land in the middle of multicultural NYC. Still, even with these provocative set-ups, these films never rose above simple stereotypes and tired gags. Sandler and Dugan didn’t seem interested in the films’ concepts; they were wasted on just another chance for mugging, funny voices, and aggressive homophobia.
So, for those who have grown up watching Adam Sandler movies, “Grown Ups” is a depressing reminder of the onset of middle age (Tellingly, I watched “Grown Ups” under the influence of a muscle relaxer due to a sprained back). Just as they have for fifteen years, Sandler and Dugan miscalculate: They confuse sentimentality with maturity. In fact, the same structural problems exist in this quasi-family slapstick comedy as they did in those juvenile gross-out comedies.
Like those earlier films, “Grown Ups” is not interested in context or complexity. To start, all of the characters are one-note: Sandler is the Rich Guy Spoiled By His Affluence. He’s stuck with a spoiled wife (Salma Hayek, who deserves more to do) and two miserably rotten children. Chris Rock is the Emasculated Husband, constantly disrespected by his working wife (Maya Rudolph, in another role Sandler and Dugan virtually ignore). Rob Schneider is Creepy Dude, who shows up with the sure-fire laugher, Old Horny Wife (Joyce Van Patten, who creates a lot of sympathy for Joyce Van Patten). David Spade is the Smarmy Single Guy who, despite little screen time, does a good job of playing David Spade. Then there’s Kevin James playing the Fat Schlep. Even though he’s fat and ho-hum, he still has a really attractive wife (Maria Bello, whose acting skills Dugan utilizes with a gag about squirting breast milk), like every fat husband in recent pop culture. Like The King of Queens for instance.
They gather to mourn the death of their junior high basketball coach, who Sandler and Dugan somehow restrain themselves from giving the Hilariously Strange Death, like “Happy Gilmore”’s Carl Weathers. Rather than touching, this set up is really sad. Does anyone really care about the mindless pep talks their 7th grade coach gave them? Especially when you’re pushing fifty? Not to mention that, almost as an aside in the third act, the film introduces a rematch with the rival team (featuring athletic heavyweights Colin Quinn and Steve Buscemi) as though every character’s dignity is going to hinge on the outcome.
As with Sandler and Dugan’s post-Gilmore movies, this film has more on its mind that just some cheap jokes. There’s a lot of talk about aging and death. You know a film is desperate to pull on your heart strings when Sandler’s daughter says in that little annoying kid voice, “I want to use the Navigator to help you find your friend in Heaven.” My first thought was: Nice product placement. My second thought was: Really? Why don’t we just haul Marley out and give him a second dose of pentobarbital as long as we’re going for pat sentiment?
These Important Life Lessons are furthered by each character’s Big Secret. Each secret is so ingrained within their bare-bone character there’s hardly any tension in the reveal. Example: Everyone knows Sandler is super rich, but he doesn’t want them to know that they have a nanny. So, he tells them she’s a foreign exchange student! Wacky! If your friends are going to bust your chops for being rich, what difference does it make? But this is “Grown Ups” idea of tension and conflict—just an extension of their tired caricatures. The script does this for every single character, each dumber than the last. Throw in some jokes about an old woman passing gas and Kevin James falling down (the fat-guy sub for Chris Farley), and that’s the movie.
Improbably, there are small moments between the actors that suggest a better film about middle age anxiety. These moments recall one of Gene Siskel’s great tests of movie quality: Which is more interesting, the movie you’re watching or a documentary of the actors just talking? In this case, I would have paid for the latter. While I am certainly not a fan of the majority of the leads (Sandler and Rock are the only two who matter), their interactions made me laugh more than once. One gets the sense that it must be pretty funny to see Spade and and Rock gang up and make fun of Schneider and then to watch him get all sour and defensive. This peeling of the onion should have been the movie.
Instead, “Grown Ups” wants us to “care” because it’s “sincere”. With that, it’s clear there’s not much difference between aiming for the cheap laugh and the cheap emotion. No matter the genre, the message is: If you don’t invest in the characters, then nothing will work. That’s a lesson Dugan and Sandler still haven’t figured out in fifteen years.