Saturday, December 4, 2010

Grown Ups

Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Joyce Van Patton
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Adam Sandler just can't seem to catch a break, can he? In last year's commercially unsuccessful dramedy Funny People he even made it a point to spoof the fact that everyone thinks he makes bad movies for big paychecks. And that's sometimes very true, but unforgiving audiences have so soundly rejected every attempt he's made to stretch out of his juvenile comfort zone, that's he's often left with little alternative. Except many of Sandler's comedies aren't bad at all and throughout his career he's always had a strong grasp on what's funny. Grown-Ups is vintage Sandler but with a slightly mellower and laid back twist and as is the norm with his work, it's better than it's being given credit for. With a comedic line-up consisting of Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider you could call it The Expendables of comedy (or a 90's SNL reunion) in terms of star power, except co-writer Sandler and director Dennis Dugan don't just gather the talent up and call it a day. While containing very little plot there's still a lot going on, but it's balanced well and boasts a sharper script than expected. More importantly, it succeeds in providing laughs all the way through without taking itself too seriously, allowing it to rank on the higher end of recent Sandler efforts.

Lenny (Sandler), Eric (James), Kurt (Rock) Marcus (Spade) and Rob (Schneider) are four childhood friends who fell out of touch but are reunited as adults when they hear about the recent passing of their junior high school basketball coach, "Buzzer" (Blake Clark) who led them to a state championship in 1978. His advice to them was to live their lives like they played the game but now as "responsible" adults it's clear that advice has flown over some of their heads, or at least they could use a healthy reminder. Lenny is a high-powered Hollywood executive married to famous fashionista, Roxanne (Salma Hayek) with whom he has two spoiled kids.  Eric is unemployed but lying about it as his wife, Sally (Maria Bello) still feels the need to breast feed their 5-year-old. Kurt is hen-pecked by his controlling wife, Deanne (Maya Rudolph) and constantly mocked by his mother-in-law who gets enough insults from him in return. Marcus is a lifelong bachelor who refuses to abandon his womanizing ways while eccentric vegan Rob is primarily concerned with pleasing third wife Gloria (Joyce Van Patten), who's over thirty years his senior. Now all reunited, Lenny rents the lake house for the Fourth of July weekend for the guys and their families, but saying the film consists of them  dramatically reassessing their life priorities wouldn't be accurate, which is a relief considering that was my main worry going into this.

Your level of tolerance for the four lead actors goes a long way in determining how much (or little) you get out of this, but despite sporting an unimpressive cinematic track record of late, are all surprisingly likable here and some (Schneider, Spade) are even the least annoying they've ever been. To the movie's advantage, the plot is an afterthought as the enjoyment comes in watching these guys just hang out and goof around. That seems like an insult but isn't when you consider the majority of the jokes and gross-out gags click in a big way and a potentially sappy message about "growing up" isn't rammed down our throats like it usually is.  Sandler's past the point where he can keep playing angry juveniles so this material finds a nice middle ground for his persona, allowing him to act like a relatively normal adult while still retaining the immature goofiness that's been his trademark. His pairing with Hayek  seems off-putting at first and they'll probably never be completely believable as onscreen spouses, but they still work surprisingly well together, or at least well enough for me to suspend disbelief and temporarily buy into it. Even the subplot with their spoiled kids who act like entitled adults plays just right in striking a timely chord without sacrificing any laughs. It was an interesting decision to cast fairly well known actresses in Hayek, Bello and Rudolph, filling supporting slots that aren't usually given the time of day, a tactic that pays off as potentially thankless wife parts come off feeling more important than they otherwise would. While the roles are predictably underwritten, they're at least sharply written and none of the actresses' talents are necessarily wasted, a small miracle considering this is a guy-driven comedy. Kevin James is the most likable (and maybe funniest overall) of the four, David Spade's suitably slimy and unlikable, a restrained Chris Rock gets some good digs in, and in the biggest surprise, Rob Schneider is not just funny in a movie, but at times borderline hilarious. His sub-plot carries the film and has some unexpected developments along the way. They're are also some smaller cameo appearances from Steve Buscemi, Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows and Norm MacDonald, most of which feel unforced and are actually funny.

Say what you wish about Sandler as an actor or comedian but he knows what's funny and also knows that when you're making a comedy, you're aiming to make audiences laugh and do little else. That should be obvious, but unfortunately too many "comedies" (namely Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and most recently Get Him to the Greek) try to go all sappy and dramatic and this comes dangerously close to skirting that line in the final act. Luckily, Dugan and Sandler seem to know this and pull back, even putting a somewhat unexpected twist on "the big game" at the end, finding the right tone that other writers and directors seem to be struggling with. Grown-Ups is fairly safe and predictable, and definitely doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of comedy, but still fits nicely under the banner of his Happy Madison production company, which boasts more creative misses than hits, never quite recapturing the magic of his two most successful comedies that inspired that name. Grown Ups doesn't either and likely wouldn't hold up at all on a second viewing, but it's smartly written and made me laugh hard, which at least qualifies it as better than most of what's currently out there.

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