REVIEWED: GROWN UPS

Grown Ups

Grown Ups is one of the year's worst comedies.

Adam Sandler has never exactly been a difficult target to knock down. Counting myself in the minority of critics who tend to actually enjoy most of his films, it is disheartening when, after several brave ventures in the last few years – namely two remarkable turns in the 9/11-centric drama Reign Over Me and the ambitious if painfully overlong Funny People – he seems to have, with Grown Ups, reverted back to the sort of role that earned him a justified critical skewering. And this isn’t bad as many might think of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan or Anger Management as bad; this is Bedtime Stories bad, in as much as it similarly guts and leaves for dead Sandler’s crass goofball personality, slaps an imposing rating on it, and expects good things which, of course, there just aren’t here.

The film begins with five boys winning their junior high basketball championship in 1978, led by their trusty coach Buzzer (Blake Clark). Cut to 2010; Buzzer has unfortunately died, causing the five estranged friends, who had a strong emotional bond with Buzzer, to reunite and scatter his ashes. The group consists of Lenny (Adam Sandler), a successful Hollywood agent, Eric (Kevin James), a co-owner of a lawn furniture company, Kurt (Chris Rock), an emasculated stay-at-home dad, Rob (Rob Schneider), a hippie, and Marcus (David Spade), a drunkard and womaniser. Over the next few days, they learn a lot about themselves and their failures, as they must finally transition from their present states of arrested development into, you’ve got it, grown ups.

For a film featuring the likes of Sandler and Chris Rock, this is an oddly clean outing that will, through its sheer banality, have even Sandler’s most ardent critics begging for some profanity and crudeness. Sandler’s typical aggressive loon act has been replaced with something far more stoic and bland, doing little to dispel the cringe-fest going on before his and our very eyes. With no R-rated material to bash through – and a 12A rating tightening the noose severely – there’s not a lot here that ever really exploits the group’s more talented members (Rock, James, and Sandler).

What good can be said? The film is clearly well-intentioned, in that it is one of Sandler’s more heartfelt efforts, though seemingly this is at the cost of his seething comic bite. The film’s formula instead consists of the group rather repetitively – and innoculously – taking the piss out of each other. With a harder rating, this could have been a laugh riot of debauched insanity that played to the cast’s strengths, yet it is so cynically, irascibly tame that it is in fact nothing but a gigantic missed opportunity even if it is not quite as bad as other critics will imply. Sandler, not known for his critical favour, finds a career worst nevertheless.

The coyness goes beyond disappointing and is ultimately just irritating, perhaps the most infuriating film of its type since the horrendous Old Dogs a few months ago (which similarly squandered talent with a sanitised script), and is all the more insulting because the film teeters on the very brink of lasciviousness constantly. Aware of the limitations – doubtless studio-imposed – the script is instead filled with throwaway pop culture references, and the consolation prize is David Spade falling in a pile of crap.

Though one expects Sandler and his core cohorts can soak the embarrassment of critical failure up like a sponge, more disconcerting are the awkward cameos from talented actors. Mario Bello plays the wife of Kevin James’ character, and is bewildering as a veritable “MILF” who still breastfeeds her 4 year-old son, while Salma Hayek scarcely escapes mostly unscathed as Sandler’s uptight wife. Steve Buscemi meanwhile appears as an enemy of Sandler’s, in a head-scratching cameo that skates an indistinguishable line between being horrifying and dementedly hilarious.

To its minor credit, and perhaps a first for Sandler’s strictly comic fare, Grown Ups does manage to make a few relevant social remarks, of how kids no longer yearn for the great outdoors in the age of HDTVs and PlayStations. There’s plenty to go around, too, because Sandler’s character embodies the overprotective nature of parents, who then wind up patronising their kids. Not that anyone would ever care to study it, but one day a misguided Sociology student might remark that Sandler’s character here reflects our heightened state of paranoia in a media-saturated world of moral panics, where paedophiles are supposedly on every corner. But let’s not get carried away…

While Chris Rock especially phones it in here, Rob Schneider is conversely the most tolerable he has been in a good while, and for those not willing to forgive him for, well, just about everything, we at least get to see Sandler wind him up quite a bit, and even assault him with a piece of dehydrated fruit. Indeed, there are a few funny moments throughout – chiefly the relaxed banter between the guys when lounging around – but these brief asides are usually deflated quickly by a thoughtless potty gag or a hokey torrent of dialogue.

Unfortunately, characters are written with no regard to temperament or disposition; they simply gravitate towards the emotional state that Sandler and co-writer Fred Wolf want them to without any sense of an arc. It isn’t that we expect Sandler to channel an inner Paddy Chayefsky through his scribing, but even the likes of Happy Gilmore at least understood the fundamentals that a character changes over time, not because a bracketed word on a sheet of paper tells them to act a certain way. At best, Sandler’s attempt here is corny, and at worst, it is mind-meltingly incoherent.

There are plenty of hugs and supposedly heartfelt confessions at the end, but there simply isn’t a genuine morsel of sentiment to be found. The whole emotional payoff plays out like a mechanised Hollywood cash-cow simulation of something really emotive. A new low for Adam Sandler and his co-conspirators, this meek 12A-rated comedy fails to play to the crass strengths of its stars and is instead an unintelligible and unfunny effort that categorically fails to make the connection with the heart that it so desperately tries to.

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