Big Daddy

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


directed by Dennis Dugan


Big Baby

Toward the end of the new Adam Sandler comedy Big Daddy—and don’t worry, I’m not spoiling any plot developments a dog couldn’t anticipate—the irresponsible fratboy hero’s adorable five-year-old ward climbs into the witness box at a custody hearing and tells the court what he “learned” from the hero. The kid tells the court that the hero taught him how to pick up chicks and pee in public, etc., all of which is sorta funny, considering how much mayhem we’ve seen the two committing together. But the end of the kid’s list is odd: He says the hero, an arena-rock fan, also taught him “that Styx is a great band that never got its due because critics are cynical assholes.”


Gawrsh, Adam—could this line actually be about something besides Styx? Since Sandler is clearly one of those fabulously successful movie stars who can’t stand the fact that not every living human on the planet thinks he’s a genius—and since one burly young male viewer at the screening I attended responded to the kid’s Styx line by yelling, “It’s true!”—I’ll go ahead and take the bait.


In case you missed my epic monograph on Sandler and his last opus, The Waterboy, I’ll summarize: I think Sandler is a very funny professional cutup, one who has a direct and undeniable sympathy pipeline to his fans. But I defy any of those fans to explain to me, with a straight face, why his movies are great, or even fitfully excellent. Despite their steadily escalating box office tallies, they strike me as strictly Good Enough for Government Work—no more memorable than Don Knotts pictures from the 60s, or pretty much any movie made in recent years by an ex-Saturday Night Live star who isn’t Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers.


And unlike Murray, Myers or Murphy—or Jim Carrey, whose first three films weren’t remotely as great as his performances—I don’t see anything in Sandler’s work that convinces me that he’s an actor, or even an inspired screen presence. Onstage, he can be paralyzingly funny, especially when he’s mincing around with a guitar doing his Raffi-goes-to-college-and-smokes-a-doob routine. But that’s onstage, where he can be completely in control of the show, letting the levels of silliness build slowly and then explode, sending his fans into crazed fits of laughter.


Onscreen, he’s not really in control; he’s just protecting himself as a star by hogging every scene and keeping active, funny bits of business out of the hands of his costars, who are rarely allowed to score points off him. Despite his simmering comic hostility, which can be very funny at times, Sandler is as stiff and closed-off an actor as Seinfeld in the first couple of seasons of his sitcom, and much less generous to the other actors onscreen with him. He’s still a stand-up comic—just one who happens to deliver his material in character with other characters standing around looking amused or aghast. Unlike his comic betters listed above—and Sandler’s pal and SNL mate Chris Rock, who made a blistering impression as the motormouthed cop in last year’s Lethal Weapon 4, and did it in character—Sandler’s acting, if you can call it that, exists in a hermetically sealed universe. Though superficially vulnerable and troubled, his heroes exist mainly to be validated; Sandler the writer-producer surrounds Sandler the actor with supporting characters who either root for him from frame one, or else profess to hate him but ultimately come around to his way of thinking because he’s so gosh-darn charming.


Like The Wedding SingerBig Daddy, which gives the Sandler hero a cute boy to protect and goof around with, is a half sappy, half-obnoxious hybrid that’s intended to expand his range—in other words, a date picture. It’s supposed to bring in large numbers of skeptical women who think Sandler is cute and likable but find his pee-pee/poo-poo humor and retarded man-child characters too off-putting, while still satisfying young male fans who plunked down their money because they think the pee-pee/poo-poo/retarded man-child thing is fuckin’ hilarious and never, ever, ever gets old.


The plot is simple, which is as it should be: Sonny Koufax (Sandler), a wastrel law school graduate who’s still living like a rich, party-hearty college kid thanks to an accident settlement, is saddled with an adorable moppet named Julian (played by twins Cole and Dylan Srouse) who is unexpectedly dumped on his doorstep. The kid might or might not be the illegitimate son of his lawyer roommate, Kevin (Jon Stewart), who is off in China for a month on business. To cover for his roomie, Sonny lies to Child Protective Services and says he is the roomie. Sonny says he’s just going to watch Julian until Kevin gets back, but soon he’s fallen for the kid and decides to adopt him (while still pretending to be Kevin). The hero slowly learns how to love and how to be responsible; i.e., Adam Sandler grows up.


He doesn’t really, though. By my stopwatch, about four-fifths of the movie plays off the same gag: Sonny the makeshift father figure teaches little Julian how to act like an irresponsible slacker. When Julian pukes on the floor or pees in the bed, Sonny covers it with newspaper. When they’re out together and Julian needs to pee and is turned away by uncaring restaurant owners, Sonny tells him to pee on the side of the building, and joins in to get the kid’s nervous bladder going.


Maybe I’m naive, but I sort of expected that after a while, Sonny would get serious about his responsibilities and start acting like a grownup, as opposed to just telling other characters that he’s starting to act like a grownup. The sight of an adult acting like a gleefully irresponsible child can be hysterically funny, Homer Simpson being the obvious example. But The Simpsons is a cartoon, as are most Jim Carrey movies; Big Daddy is told in a fairly straightforward, realistic style, has credibly real supporting characters and seems to be set in our world.


Ergo, after 80 minutes of Sonny either letting the kid run wild or actively encouraging him to misbehave, I started to get the queasy feeling that what I was seeing wasn’t the comic tale of a young surrogate dad who grows up, but a feature-length justification for the star’s refusal to do the same. Sandler and screenplay collaborator Tim Herlihy, who rewrote an original script by Steve Franks, seem terrified to let Sonny actually change; maybe they were afraid Sandler couldn’t be funny if he wasn’t acting like a punk and shaping the storyline in ways that make people who are alarmed by the hero’s spastic misbehavior look like anal-retentive killjoys.

 

But if Bill Murray proved anything in the classic Groundhog Day, it’s that a selfish, irresponsible hero can become a decent person and still be fun to watch, as long as the material is good and the star has the brass and the acting chops to go all the way—to actually show the character changing and growing, instead of just telling us that’s what’s happening. For a movie about a young man learning to love a would-be son, there’s curiously little chemistry between the hero and his ward. The kid is basically a prop—something director Dennis Dugan can cut to and draw an instinctive “awwww” from the chicks in the audience. A dog would’ve worked just as well.


Big Daddy is irritating for reasons that go beyond the star’s failure of nerve. The Phantom Menace discrimination-watch crowd ought to have a field day with this movie, though I suspect they’ve already done the conscience thing this summer and can’t be bothered to get outraged again now that the troublesome characters are human and specific. Big Daddy‘s rogues’ gallery includes a wacky, drug-fried homeless man with rotten teeth (Steve Buscemi in a cameo), an illiterate Indian food delivery guy who’s always hanging out at the hero’s apartment (Rob Schneider, doing the same all-purpose foreigner accent as always) and a black spectator at the trial who’s the butt of an O.J. joke. Two of the hero’s best friends from college are gay men who happen to be lovers, and early in the movie I was heartened to see consummate cool white-guy Sandler defending them when another friend admitted to finding gay people creepy.


Unfortunately, every time we see this couple afterward, they’re feeling each other up, talking about muscle tone and flirting outrageously even in public. In the scene where they help babysit the kid, one of the lovers is sitting on a couch admiring Brad Pitt’s abs in Thelma & Louise. Is Sandler expressing a secret wish or what? The film’s portrayal of homosexuals reminded me of a straight friend’s comment that if he could be a woman for one day, the first thing he’d do is take his clothes off and look at himself in a mirror.


I don’t doubt that Big Daddy will make staggering amounts of money, and that the box office total, coupled with reviews like this one, will further convince Sandler that he’s a comic genius who’s pure of soul and won’t be appreciated by the critics in his lifetime. Still, I suspect the box office and critical success of the Austin Powers sequel might rattle Sandler’s cage a bit. At least, I’d like to think it will, because it should. Sandler is charismatic, likable and in some ways talented, but as a movie star, he’s lazy; he wants people to think he’s evolving even though he clearly isn’t. Myers, on the other hand, is proving his versatility as a comic actor and blossoming into a great screen presence. Both the Powers movies are larded down with easy scatological humor, and product placement in the sequel is noxious, but both films have a couple dozen brilliant lines (“When
I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds—pretty standard, really”) and at least a dozen sequences so original and fall-down funny that people may never stop talking about them. There’s plenty to think of when you think of Myers. When I think of Sandler in Big Daddy, all I see is a pucker-faced star-of-the-moment who’s well aware that he’s stumbled onto a lucrative cinematic racket and wants to protect that image at the expense of everything else, including his own potential.


Aren’t we all little people on the inside? And shouldn’t people be judged by the purity of their souls rather than their height? And do you think that when Anita Ekberg was shooting the sex scene in the new Belgian film The Red Dwarf, in which the pint-sized hero mounts her from behind and humps her furiously, that she thought to herself, for a fleeting moment, “For this I worked with Fellini?”


The answer, Anita, is yes; 

The Red Dwarf exists because its director, Belgian filmmaker Yvan Le Moine, saw a lot of Fellini movies and decided to make a film that might be credible as a half-baked parody of Fellini if it wasn’t so solemn and pious and misty-eyed. The main character is a dwarf named Lucien Lhotte (Jean-Yves Thual) who works at a legal firm and specializes in writing fake incriminating letters for use in divorce cases. He is also a sensitive and talented poet, though not many people get to know him well enough to find this out. He likes visiting the circus, and it is at one such circus where he falls in love with a pure-of-soul 12-year-old trapeze artist named Isis Columbe (Dyna Gauzy), but of course, since she is a kid and he’s a dwarf, their relationship remains platonic. (Ah, those Europeans and their charming tales of unrequited love between adult men and barely pubescent sirens!)


The plot thickens: While delivering an incriminating letter to one of the firm’s clients, played by Ekberg, Lucien finds himself powerfully attracted to the woman. He impulsively gets naked and shares a passionate interlude; pretty soon he’s locked in an obsessive affair, humping the zaftig lady’s brains out on lunch breaks; the hormones boiling through his peanut-shaped head fog his brain, and he begins behaving oddly at the office, acting like—gasp!—an individual. But one day the client decides to reconcile with her husband and Lucien gets drunk, puts on one of her wigs and strangles her to death. Then he loses his mind, quits his job, blows town and takes refuge at the circus. The dwarf who always wanted to be seen as something other than a circus character is forced to assume the identity of a circus character! The irony is exquisite, no?


As photographed by Danny Elsen in stark yet textured black and white tones, The Red Dwarf looks great—like a Fellini movie circa 1960 or so—and it’s certainly grotesque and strange enough to hold one’s attention. Thual is a riveting screen presence, not because he’s a good actor—he isn’t—but because he looks like an itsy-bitsy teeny-tiny William F. Buckley Jr., which definitely ups the creep-out quotient when the character is humping Anita Ekberg or announcing his resignation by taking a big dump on his boss’ desk. (The turd is in the frame, which should remove any doubt that this movie is artistic.) But it’s hard to say what the filmmaker is up to—or even if he knows for sure what he’s up to. He’s lost in his own head. He’s made a fetish object for fans of Fellini, or maybe for fans of substandard, Fellini-esque movies, but except for the sex scenes, the desk turd and some other John Waters-type elements, the movie is more soft-headed and icky-sweet than it wants us to think. It’s easy to see Robin Williams in tragic clown mode playing the dwarf hero in an American remake, with special effects help from Industrial Light & Magic. Or maybe Adam Sandler.



Framed

Baby talk: If you’re interested in fertility issues, or even if you just like hearing stories of pregnancies against the odds, check out And Baby Makes Two, an endearing documentary by Judy Katz and Oren Rudavsky that’s playing June 25-July 1 at the Quad Cinemas. Made for PBS, it runs about an hour, which means it falls into that netherworld between feature-length documentaries and shorts, but it’s satisfying all the same. Though the subjects are women in a support group who are desperately trying to get pregnant, the filmmakers keep things relatively honest. They know the material is so emotionally loaded that they don’t have to push things; they can just sit back, observe and let the audience groove on the emotional highs and lows of the women’s journeys. Great use of Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 cover of “Baby Mine” from Dumbo.


Small words: The newspaper ads for The Red Dwarf lead off with a blurb from the summer’s biggest box-office name: George Lucas. “Heroes come in all sizes,” it reads. “You don’t have to be a giant hero. You can be a very small hero.” A small hero who dumps on a desk and humps Anita Ekberg from behind? The statement came from Lucas’ interview with Bill Moyers in an April issue of Time magazine and has zippo do to with The Red Dwarf. I’ve seen a lot of out-of-context blurbs in my day, but this one takes the cake. The Belgian-dwarf feces cake, that is.

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