'That's My Boy': Sandler Gives Birth to a Hateful Comedy
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
It's not hard to imagine the slow, grinding trudge of any film critic as he or she walks toward a new Adam Sandler film, with established past knowledge weighing down every step and yet-to-be-determined possible future quality as the only thing even moving his or her feet. Sandler's filmography proves, simultaneously, that he's occasionally capable of good, light, charming work and that, by and large, he has less and less interest in doing so. "The Wedding Singer," "Punch-Drunk Love," "Funny People" -- Sandler can play a character, deliver a joke and win the audiences over through charm. He can also simply show up as himself, croak unfunny things in an unfunny accent and degrade almost all of humanity in the unclean pursuit of a cheap laugh. The problem is that the former does not make a lot of money, and the latter does.
Also read: Adam Sandler's 10 Worst Movies
"That's My Boy" is another Sandler sleepwalk. He plays Donny Berger, who, as a high school student, had an illicit fling with his teacher (Eva Amurri Martino), which resulted in a child. The first point to be made is that if a comedy began with a male teacher having an affair with a female student under the age of consent, you'd hope people would be appalled; the reverse, when contemplated, should be just as disturbing. After a brief fling with '80s notoriety, Donny is, in 2012, a horrible loser, and played by Sandler with an awkward mush-mouthed Baaaaaahston accent that serves no purpose. His son left at 18, and Donny's never bothered to look for him. Now, owing the IRS $43,000 with the alternatives of paying up or going to jail, Donny finds that his son, now known as Todd (Andy Samberg), is a wealthy hedge-fund manager getting married the coming weekend ...
You can predict the rest of the plot: Todd learns to lighten up from wedding crasher Donny, while Donny gets to be admired by every other character until a deus ex machina huffs and wheezes its way into the finale of the film to save him. It's hardly new, and a plot that could have been improved by surrounding it with real character and real comedy. Instead, though, we get a series of jokes around the idea that every female character in the film is either a nymphomaniac or works at a strip club. Or how every character of color is a joke as well, like the morbidly obese black stripper Donny takes advice from to the Asian servants at Todd's boss's house, seen licking plates as revenge for their boss's racism. At one point, a female character sniffs a stain twice, then licks it, confirming it's a bodily fluid we shall not name. Sandler makes love to an octogenarian, in a three-way. We repeatedly see a fabric-veiled shape of Sandler's character's erect penis, held near the faces of other characters. If someone told you about almost every joke in "That's My Boy," you would think they were either a sociopath or a budding serial killer. So why is it funny from Sandler? Do we want to see characters humiliated so we can feel above them? Are audiences that primed to accept Sandler, no questions asked?
There are some islands to cling to in the sea of blood, spit, product-placement Budweiser and semen "That's My Boy" sloshes over us. Samberg tries so hard to actually make Todd a character, you almost feel bad for him. James Caan and Milo Ventimiglia hurl themselves into small supporting parts with the kind of brio that shines out even when surrounded by dreck. And in noting that the funniest performance in "That's My Boy" is by Vanilla Ice as himself, I intend that as a kind compliment to Mr. Ice and as unkind perspective about everyone else. Director Sean Anders ("Hot Tub Time Machine," "Sex Drive") and screenwriter David Caspe ("Happy Endings") have done smarter work than this, and better work; you can feel the Sandler sensibilities, no doubt reinforced by the band of mediocrities who enable him (Nick Swardson, Allen Covert, Colin Quinn, all of whom are less collaborators with Sandler than co-conspirators), drag everything down.
At one point, we watch Sandler's character masturbate for about two minutes, which is a nice metaphor -- much like "Grown Ups," I'm sure making this film was fun for him, but not nearly as much fun for anyone who expects more than come, sex crimes and goofy voices in a comedy. After I saw 'That's My Boy," I walked out of the theater shell-shocked, and a fellow moviegoer -- not a member of the press -- looked askance at me and said, "Were you confounded by that like I was? I mean, it's 2012, and we're still making jokes like that?" Apparently, Adam Sandler is. And until moviegoing America quits selecting movies based on low expectations, familiar faces and name recognition, we'll still make those jokes profitable. The fault is not in the star, but in ourselves.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.