'Grown Ups' Is Infantile Trash
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Years from now, when future generations want to know exactly how idiotic, insipid and insulting the worst of early 21st-century pop culture could be -- whether they ride hover cars or mutant cockroaches, whether they dine on food pills or each other -- they will simply have to watch a copy of "Grown Ups," the latest film from Adam Sandler. They may lack some of the cultural context that helps us in the here-and-now appreciate how lazy and greedy "Grown Ups" is: Will they know of the mid-'90s era of "Saturday Night Live" and how it spawned the careers of Sandler and his co-stars Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade? Will "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," where Sandler first worked with co-star Kevin James, be lost to the ravages of time? Even if they lack that cultural knowledge (and oh, briefly imagine living in that blessed age), though, they'd have to nonetheless recognize "Grown Ups" as the sloppy, vain junk it is. They will, if they're still human.
The not-so-fab five male leads of "Grown Ups" are playing childhood friends reunited at the funeral of the basketball coach who led them to a championship in their distant youth. After the funeral, the five and their spouses, children and some relations head to the lake house where they spent their boyhood summers. Sandler, a wealthy Hollywood agent, fears his children are becoming brats spoiled by his and his fashionista wife Salma Hayek's success. Rock is a harried house-husband. James is hiding recent bad news. Schneider has a slew of broken marriages and distant children in his wake. Spade is a perpetual Peter Pan, unattached and unhappy. Imagine if "The Big Chill" were made today. And obsessed with flatulence, urine and breast milk. And every female character a hag, a harridan, a harpy or a hottie. And if none of the characters seemed to actually like each other.
"Grown Ups" is directed by Dennis Dugan and written by Sandler and Fred Wolf, although the verbs "directed" and "written" do not, in this sentence and in the movie itself, have their traditional meanings. Dugan's less a director than a co-dependent enabler, letting Sandler do what he will and signing off on it over and over. Dugan has also worked with Sandler on "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" and an unholy host of other collaborations. Sandler, like Howard Stern and Danielle Steele and Tyler Perry, is defended by fans as someone who has an audience and makes money. Just like an arms merchant or a cocaine dealer.
And that comparison is incorrect, in part because arms dealers and cocaine dealers have to deliver quality products to their customers. Sandler, at his worst, feels no such obligation. It's easy to imagine "Grown Ups" as a conscious act of revenge on Sandler's part: Hey, America, you didn't go see "Funny People"? You want more kooky Adam? Here it is, and I hope you choke on it! But that implies a degree of energy and effort that the lazy, shabby "Grown Ups" simply doesn't have.
In its last reel, "Grown Ups" goes beyond being merely bad to being curiously contemptuous and maudlin. The team that Sandler and friends beat demands a rematch, 32 years later, and when Sandler looks over at the captain of the other team (Colin Quinn) and his haggard, hectoring doughy-skinned wife, it leads to a moment of what's surely intended as noble graciousness -- hey, little mortal, let Adam Sandler help you out -- that instead reads as flat and sour. It's followed by a closing-credits song where Sandler croons a remembrance to his late father that's as clearly heartfelt as it is cringingly uncomfortable. Self-serving nobility and tuneless sentiment -- that's a one-two punch that will leave you dazed, unless you don't mind being treated like an idiot.
"Grown Ups" is selling itself as "fun," with images of its stars inner tubing and playing hoops, cracking wise and breaking bones. To be fair, it seems as if Sandler and his friends had a lot of fun making "Grown Ups," but in these recessionary times -- or, for that matter, in any time -- asking audiences to pay for the privilege of seeing Sandler and his friends in the cinematic equivalent of their holiday photos feels a little much. Sandler's capable of good work ("Punch-Drunk Love," "Funny People") and even capable of noble errors working with real directors ("Reign Over Me," "Spanglish") -- but since those films die a dog's death at the box office, we get "Grown Ups" and its ilk over and over again. I'm sure there are even worse Sandler movies to come for future generations to view as sociological curiosities. In the present moment, though, in the theater during "Grown Ups," I felt a deep and abiding sadness every time the audience laughed and the sounds of their chuckles turned into the ringing of the cash register, and all I thought was a sad, simple truth: This, America, is why we can't have nice things.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.