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Wayback Wednesday: Adam Sandler

July 29, 2009

In anticipation of this week’s release of Funny People (look for a review at Nerve on Friday), here are two reviews of recent Adam Sandler films, as well as a feature on the whole school of man-child comedy, originally written for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
118 min., PG-13 (crude and sexual content throughout, language and nudity)
Grade: ** (2 out of 5)

If anyone has been eagerly anticipating a zany summer comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wait is finally over. But those of you hoping said comedy would possess some sort of daring satirical insight on the matter are bound to be disappointed, unless you find endless jokes about hummus to be particularly revealing about Middle Eastern culture.

Adam Sandler is Zohan, a deadly Israeli intelligence agent who knows how to party. When he’s not out capturing terrorists or bending Arab agents into pretzel shapes, he enjoys disco dancing, playing hacky sack on the beach and barbecuing in the nude. When Zohan is called back early from vacation to lead a mission against Palestinian terrorist the Phantom (John Turturro) – whom he had just captured three months earlier, and who has just been released again in a prisoner exchange – he begins to see his work as essentially pointless.

Zohan’s real dream is to go to American and pursue a career in the cutting and styling of hair. Inspired by his prize possession, a 20-year-old edition of the Paul Mitchell guide to hairstyling, the feared agent fakes his own death in battle with the Phantom. Hitching a ride in a plane’s baggage compartment, he makes his way to New York, trading in his shaggy ‘70s-era Bob Dylan look for a “silky smooth” hairdo that would be state-of-the-art in 1986.

Unfortunately for Zohan, this is 2008 and the Paul Mitchell salon has no use for his services. He has to swallow his pride and settle for sweeping up hair in a shop run by the lovely but Palestinian-born Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). When one of Dalia’s stylists unexpectedly quits, Zohan finally gets his chance. His unorthodox methods – which include deep, sensual scalp massage, plenty of pelvic thrusting and even a little boom-boom in the back room – prove to be a hit with the older ladies who frequent the shop.

Zohan has achieved his dream, but his old life returns to haunt him when he is recognized by taxi driver Salim (cq) (Rob Schneider), whose goat Zohan had stolen years earlier. Even as Salim and his Arab friends plot vengeance against Zohan, a ruthless developer stages several hate crimes in the neighborhood, in hopes of driving Dalia out of business.

Just as Zohan’s retro hair styling, Daisy Duke short-shorts and passion for ‘80s dance pop mark him as a throwback, the movie that bears his name is something of a nostalgia trip for Sandler and his fans. Teaming once again with Happy Gilmore director Dennis Dugan, Sandler has returned to his very silly roots. Zohan relies on broad slapstick fight scenes, comical accents and plenty of crude sexual humor. There are more than a few laughs in the movie (the script is by Sandler, SNL vet Robert Smigel and the omnipresent Judd Apatow, who has spread himself so thin by now, he can probably slide under his office door in the morning), but there’s an awful lot of infantile nonsense, too. Unless you find words like ‘baba ganoush’ inherently hilarious, the nearly two-hour running time proves to be a punishing length.

As for the Israeli-Arab theme, let’s just say that it’s handled in a rather simplistic manner. It’s always nice to reinforce the idea that most folks of Middle Eastern descent are just regular people like you and me, since some people still haven’t gotten the memo. But the movie still traffics in some very familiar stereotypes, and the ending – which sort of boils down to “the white man hates all of us anyway, so we might as well be friends” – probably won’t qualify Zohan for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bedtime Stories
104 min., PG (some mild rude humor and mild language)
Grade: ** (2 out of 5)

Moviegoers have now been treated to two sides of Adam Sandler in 2008, and it’s hard to say that either is preferable to the other. The summer saw the release of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, which found Sandler in lewd-and-crude slapstick mode. Now, just in time for the holidays, family-friendly Sandler is here to babysit your kids for a couple of hours while you’re returning gifts at the mall.

In Bedtime Stories, Sandler is Skeeter Bronson, a handyman at the Los Angeles luxury hotel owned by germ-phobic magnate Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths). Skeeter’s father Marty (Jonathan Pryce) had previously owned a much homier mom-and-pop motel on the site, but sold out to Nottingham on the condition that Skeeter would one day manage the business.

That day may be on the horizon, as Nottingham is planning an even more extravagant resort, and he’s already rejected the theme proposed by current manager Kendall (Guy Pearce), who happens to be engaged to Nottingham’s Paris Hilton-esque daughter Violet (Teresa Palmer). He offers Skeeter a chance to compete with Kendall for the manager’s position by presenting his own ideas for the new hotel.

Skeeter has an ace up his sleeve: in the course of entertaining his niece and nephew with bedtime stories, he discovers that the made-up tales are predictive of events in real life. For instance, if nephew Patrick injects a rain of gumballs into a western yarn Skeeter is spinning, the following day will see a candy truck breaking down on an overpass and showering Skeeter with those very treats.

Skeeter attempts to direct the stories toward favorable outcomes for himself, such as wooing the kids’ teacher Jill (Keri Russell) and landing the hotel gig, but he can’t prevent the children from throwing unwelcome twists into the tales.

Bedtime Stories revolves around a concept that may have sounded great in the pitch meeting, but never got fully developed. There’s a first-draft randomness to the screenplay by Matt Lopez and longtime Sandler cohort Tim Herlihy; certain elements, such as a googly-eyed pet guinea pig, play like “trailer moments” that have been shoehorned into the proceedings. Russell Brand is a welcome source of quirkiness as Skeeter’s room service buddy, but he seems to be visiting from a different movie, as does Rob Schneider in a typically tone-deaf cameo in Native American garb. (Seriously, did Schneider save Sandler’s life in a fire or something?)

Sandler has more chemistry with the kids than with Russell, but ultimately he’s just playing the latest in a long string of hostile man-children. We’ve been here before, and we already know how this story ends.

MEN WILL BE BOYS

Forty is the new 30, 30 is the new 20, and men will be boys as long as they can get away with it. That’s the message lurking in a spate of contemporary comedies centered on American males in their mid-30s who resist the conventions and responsibilities of adulthood. At an age when their fathers were married homeowners with children and steady paychecks, these late bloomers are still living with their parents, couch-surfing with friends or starting their own fraternity houses.

The 2003 release of Old School, with its depiction of early mid-life crisis as nonstop toga party, can now be seen as the launching pad for the current trend. The success of Wedding Crashers last year established Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as America’s favorite boys who refuse to grow up, and both have returned this summer in similar roles: Vaughn in The Break-Up and Wilson in You, Me and Dupree. Other usual suspects include Matthew McConaughey, seen earlier this year in Failure to Launch, and perpetual man-child Adam Sandler, now starring in Click. Filmmaker Kevin Smith’s sequel to Clerks carries the tagline “With no power comes no responsibility,” while the upcoming Edward Burns comedy The Groomsmen counters with “There’s a difference between getting older and growing up.”

How to explain this sudden surplus of thirtysomethings more likely to be seen playing videogames and doing keg-stands than changing diapers and pursuing the corner office? Let’s get the most obvious (and perhaps cynical) answer out of the way first: Old School grossed $75 million at the U.S. box office and nearly twice that amount in its DVD release. It was relatively inexpensive to produce and boasted a high concept premise that proved easy to replicate. Now the multiplex is overrun with guys incapable of acting their age, from Wilson’s Randy Dupree, the best man who overstays his welcome with his newlywed friends, to Sandler’s Michael Newman, who uses a universal remote to fast-forward through the tedious obligations of work and family.

As dopey as some of these comedies may be, however, they do reflect a societal shift that has taken place in recent years. According to a survey conducted by the University of Chicago in 2003, most Americans believe that adulthood begins at age 26. Baby boomers who were sent packing by their parents on their eighteenth birthdays have been much more open to letting their adult children live at home well into their twenties and even their thirties. Often there are sound economic reasons for this; sometimes it’s just sort of creepy and sad. (A short documentary about this trend included on the Failure to Launch DVD is far more interesting than the movie itself.)

Those who do leave the nest in a timely fashion are not necessarily in any hurry to put away childish things and assume the role of a traditional adult. Books with titles like Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis clutter the shelves of the self-help section, and pundits have been busy coining new buzzwords like “adultescent” and “grup” to describe graying, paunchy guys who still wear Ramones t-shirts and ride their skateboards to the comic book store. Guys like, for instance, Kevin Smith.

The Clerks II director turns 36 next month, and despite having a wife, daughter and successful career, has not yet embraced a conventional adult lifestyle. “I guess I have kind of an extenuating circumstance, because I have this job that affords kind of eternal adolescence,” Smith said in a recent interview with the Star-Telegram. “So there’s no trigger to pull that says ‘OK, now you’ve got to grow up.’ But a lot of people in my age range – and a lot of people I know who don’t do what I do for a living – are also kind of in the weird same place where they, too have extended adolescence.”

Having achieved fame and fortune at a young age, actors like Wilson, Vaughn and Sandler have also been able to afford eternal adolescence, which is perhaps another reason these movies keep getting made. Their screen personas are perfectly suited to these man-child roles, and it’s not hard to believe that they see something of themselves in such characters. Yet the actual movies are rarely odes to the joys of staying forever young. The men who live like boys will eventually learn their lesson: by evading the hassles of adult life, they are also missing out on its richer joys. In the end, we know Owen, Vince and Adam will realize that it’s time to put away the beer bongs, sell the Star Wars action figures and become respectable members of society.

These third-act conversions inevitably feel obligatory and unconvincing, mainly because crude goofball comedies aren’t exactly the ideal medium for conveying life lessons on maturity. Who needs a lecture on adulthood from some guy who wrestles in a kiddie pool full of jello for a living? There’s something hypocritical about selling a movie to the public by exploiting its raunchy, juvenile elements – the sight gags and vulgar jokes that call out to the adolescent in us all – and then telling us to grow up already. Let’s face it: if we did that, Hollywood would be out of business in a week.


Sidebar: Case Studies in Adultescence

There has been an outbreak of adultescence (owenus wilsonitis) at the multiplex, but some cases are more severe than others. Here’s a breakdown of the various strains that have been identified.

Subject: Randy Dupree (Owen Wilson) of You, Me and Dupree

Diagnosis: Second-degree mooch

Symptoms: After losing his job, subject crashes on the couch of newlyweds Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson, extends his stay indefinitely, and nearly burns their house down.

Recommended Treatment: Forcible removal from the premises. Repeat as necessary.

Subject: Tripp (Matthew McConaughey) of Failure to Launch

Diagnosis: First-degree mooch

Symptoms: 35-year-old subject still lives at home with parents Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw. They want him out.

Recommended Treatment: Hire Sarah Jessica Parker to lure him out of the nest. If that doesn’t work, one visit to Bradshaw’s “naked room” should do the trick.

Subject: Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) of The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Diagnosis: Late bloomer

Symptoms: Subject’s apartment contains custom-made videogame chair and thousands of vintage action figures, including Aquaman and the Six Million Dollar Man’s boss, Oscar Goldman. No woman has ever crossed its threshold.

Recommended Treatment: Nookie

Subject: Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) of Fever Pitch

Diagnosis: Fenway fanatic

Symptoms: During the late fall and winter months, subject is a perfectly well-adjusted math teacher. During the spring and summer, no woman can replace the Boston Red Sox in his heart.

Recommended treatment: Prolonged exposure to Drew Barrymore and a World Series championship

Subject Dewey Finn (Jack Black) of School of Rock

Diagnosis: Terminal rockage

Symptoms: Subject is unemployed, has been kicked out of his band, and is living rent-free with best friend Ned and his girlfriend. This does not rock.

Recommended treatment: Pose as a substitute teacher and share the power of rock with the youth of America

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One Comment
  1. awesome post :]

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