You know those real estate scams where you're offered a free vacation if you just sit through a time-share presentation and that time-share presentation seems never-ending, because even if it's just two hours, what you really wanted was a free vacation?
For Adam Sandler, filmmaking is like that time-share presentation.
All the guy wants is to get major motion picture studios to subsidize his vacations. Is that so wrong? If Sony or Warner Brothers said to you, “How would you like an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii or Africa or a secluded lake? And all you have to do is deliver a movie and nobody on our side will even ask to see a script or bother looking at the final cut,” what would you say? You'd accept the deal. Don't deny it.
It's obvious that Sandler and his partners-in-vacation-loving-crime don't especially enjoy the quid pro quo required for their global galavanting, but like that monotonous time-share presentation, a mid-range budgeted theatrical comedy is the price they have to pay for a situation I assume is luxurious.
Trust me, if Sandler could get vacations in exchange for an Allen Covert-centric features, he'd do nothing but produce. Unfortunately, a sequel to “Grandma's Boy” isn't getting you even as far as Shreveport.
In the name of a comped holiday, Sandler has meandered through offerings that range from mediocre-but-unsettling (the amnesiac romance of “50 First Dates” creeps me out) to downright cinematic crimes (“Grown Ups,” “Grown Ups 2,” that thing with Brooklyn Decker).
That's a preamble to my warning that I sat down for “Blended,” a temporary impediment to Sandler and Drew Barrymore enjoying a vacation in South Africa, with trepidation, having already cringed through the trailers on the behalf of the absurdly talented Terry Crews, seemingly clowning his way through a stereotypical African musical act that probably should have been dubbed Ladysmith Black ManBozo. [Thanks to Twitter follower @EstherK for recognizing “ManBozo” was funnier in this context than just “MamBozo.” If either is funny, I mean.]
You say “pre-judging.” I say “citing ample precedent.” But at this point, nobody goes into Adam Sandler movies a blank slate. You either dread every low-brow comedy and wish for “Punch-Drunk Love II,” or you're willing to forgive nearly anything in perpetuity because “Billy Madison,” “The Wedding Singer” and “The Waterboy” were all hella funny back in the day.
You need to know the context and the perspective so that you know how many grains of salt to take this with:
“Blended” is far from the worst movie to come out of a studio-subsidized Adam Sandler vacation.
In fact, I'd wager that there's a serviceably so-so movie hiding within the flabby bloat of the 117 minute “Blended” running time. With a better director and a more discerning editor, “Blended” might have been trimmed and reshaped into a 90-minute family dramedy that still might have allowed for a couple shots of humping rhinos and for two or three iterations of a gag in which a mother whacks her sleeping son's head against a wall or a door. As it stands, “Blended” is a woefully unfunny movie, but almost despite itself, there are moments of fleeting human emotion, delivered largely by Barrymore and young co-stars Emma Furmann and Alyvia Alyn Lind.
By the end, I wouldn't say that I was especially moved by “Blended,” but I respected its mawkish aspirations more than its attempts at predictable family-style bawdiness.
More after the break…
Ivan Menchell & Clare Sera wrote the “Blended” screenplay, but I believe we can all assume that whatever the original script looked like, it went through the Happy Madison Productions meat-grinder, so probably all that remains is the flimsy, flimsy structure.
Barrymore plays a recently divorced closet organizer — See, she thinks she can organize her life, but she refuses to relinquish control — with a pair of sons.
Sandler plays a manager at a Dick's Sporting Goods — I'd say “See, he thinks that life is just a game and can't take anything seriously,” but the reality is that this is just a product plug — with a trio of daughters. The character is semi-recently widowed, but the information about his dead wife is initially introduced as a way to shame Barrymore's character, which feels like a low blow and makes everything after feel a bit cheap.
It won't surprise you to know that Barrymore's character isn't exactly equipped to handle sons, but she's doing the best she can, while Sandler's character isn't exactly equipped to handle daughters, but he's doing the best he can.
The two have a horrible first date at Hooters, which is only there because it's a horrible place to have a first date and because Adam Sandler is our society's greatest advocate on behalf of Hooters.
Anyway… They hate each other. But then, narrative structure ensues.
Her co-worker (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is dating his boss-or-something, but they split up shortly before a planned African vacation with his five sons. But wait… That's a seven-person vacation! And our two main characters have five combined children. Before you can say, “Well isn't that convenient,” they've separately agreed to their numerically appropriate portion of the vacation and headed to Africa, only to discover that they're sharing a Blended Family Week with people they hate.
Adam Sandler movies don't handle handle cultural difference especially well, but lest one accuse Sandler and company of either racism or xenophobia, it has to be said that he also leans on stereotyping when it comes to depictions of varied shades of whiteness as well.
The minor relief, then, is that “Blended” isn't exactly about Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore going to Africa. It's about characters going to the Sun City Resort, which you may or may not recall as that place Steven Van Zandt and company refused to play back in the height of apartheid. “Blended” is no more or less a movie about Africa than “The Hangover” is a documentary treatise on the Hoover Dam. The Sun City Resort just happens to be in Africa and happens to presumably offer safari excursions, otherwise none of the characters would know they'd been to Africa at all and thanks to excessive CGI, process shots and stock footage of animals grazing on the steppe, I'm reasonably sure the stars of “Blended” got no closer to animals than they would have at your local zoo.
There's one scene in which two kids wander through what kinda resembles a shanty-town and the depiction of buffed-and-polished poverty is almost disturbingly out of place in the film, though still not as out of place as the disturbingly broad comedic types who populate the not-quite-slum. There are several aged African characters who you'd think were disconcerting and vaguely problematic callbacks to Uncle Remus, except that history has taught us that decrepit old white guys freak Adam Sandler out as well. [Nothing in all the world is more disturbing to Adam Sandler than a sexually frank older woman, though. That remains as true here as in any of his films.]
To its very limited credit, “Blended” dodges predictably cheap punchlines about African food, African plumbing or anything Africa-specific, which makes it almost a spiritual sibling to Anne Tyler or Lawrence Kasdan's “The Accidental Tourist.” The characters here are all very excited to go to Africa, because it's a place they can swim in a wave pool, play basketball and enjoy an ample buffet with a chocolate fountain. [It's a good thing Sally Struthers successfully ended hunger in Africa, or else you might be disgusted by the gluttony.] Yes, they also ride ostriches, but they're pretty clearly fake ostriches, so it's hard to be frustrated on either an animal rights or sociological levels.
Bottom Line: It's not my responsibility to be frustrated that “Blended” wasted a studio's money to film in Africa while capturing so little of Africa, and if avoiding anything genuinely African was the best way “Blended” could avoid anything genuinely racist, then that was actually money well spent.
The same cannot be true of the money spent on even the technical basics when it comes to “Blended.” There is a decline in Frank Coraci's directing precision that I can't help but find peculiar. Go back to “The Wedding Singer.” It's a tight 95 minutes. The comedic rhythms are consistent and reliable. The stars are reasonably well-shot and the camera is usually in the right place. The same is mostly true of “The Waterboy.” There's some bloat that's beginning to set in by “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Click,” while I skipped his more recent collaborations with Kevin James.
But the thing that hurts most about “Blended” isn't the laziness of Sandler lumbering through the same comedic beats he's been doing for 20+ years now, nor the complacent cameos from his vacation-loving friends. It's how horrible the movie looks. I don't know whether to blame Coraci or cinematographer Julio Macat for the overlit, poorly focused indoor scenes that make both Barrymore and Sandler look haggard and exhausted. Were it just at the beginning of the movie, I'd allow for the idea that the filmmakers wanted to show how badly the characters (and actors) needed a vacation, but the post-Africa indoor scenes are every bit as unkind. In Africa, it's the poor matching animal stock footage and indifferently shot footage of the main characters that rankles. Too often, camera set-ups seem haphazzard or designed only to obfuscate the lack of proximity between actors and nature, which isn't a recipe for comedy. And then, once again, there's the 117 minute running time, which is the sort of thing that Congress really ought to legislate against.
I guess Coraci is convinced that audiences will gladly spend unlimited time with Sandler and Barrymore, which is willfully blind to how unlikable the stars are in the first half of the movie. Barrymore's character is a type-A harpy and Sandler is somnambulistic and you kinda start hoping that Child Protective Services will turn out to be the true hero. In the second half of the movie, you sorta remember that we like Barrymore and Sandler when they like each other, but their best scene is primarily elevated by a monkey band performing “Careless Whisper” and the chances of my not liking a scene with that backdrop are less than zero. [In fact, the chances of my not liking a movie containing a scene like that is close to 10 or 15 percent, which lets you know how much the rest of the movie drags that one scene down.]
Mostly, it's left for Barrymore to elevate the entire movie through the force of her charm and the not-insignificant tenderness she generates with her young co-stars. Emma Fuhrmann, saddled with the one-joke name of “Espn,” gives a sweetly naturalistic performance as Sandler's middle daughter, who still insists she can see her deceased mother. I'd go so far as to say that Fuhrmann is almost dazzling, because I remind you that this character description is for a role in an Adam Sandler comedy and yet the 12-year-old actress keeps it from becoming a cheap or manipulative joke. When Fuhrmann and Barrymore are interacting, “Blended” is an entirely different, better movie that, as a rule, “Blended” has no interest in being. And while Alyvia Alyn Lind has more than a little “sitcom kid” to her, she's got enough timing to sell punchlines which, in different tiny hands, might be coarse or pointlessly random and, like Fuhrmann, she brings out the best in Barrymore. Even tween icon Bella Thorne plays well with Barrymore, though she isn't especially plausible as the androgynous daughter who — SHOCKINGLY — turns out to be hot after a spa makeover. Barrymore doesn't have nearly the same rapport with the young actors playing her sons and, unfortunately, their emotional arcs with Sandler ring hollow as well.
When it comes to the secondary roles, I'm afraid to say that “Blended” offers nothing funnier than Shaquille O”Neal doing a brief belly-dance, though Jessica Lowe offers some effective helium-voiced jiggling, making some unfunny dialogue a bit less unfunny. The movie also features Kevin Nealon and Joel McHale giving phoned-in performances, though only one was worthy of a comped trip to Africa.
The Terry Crews thing is a problem, because I want nothing more than to be supportive of Terry Crews' career and I guess that if you've never before seen Terry Crews sing or juggle his pecs, you might think what he's doing in “Blended” is revelatory. The idea, though, that if “Blended” is a hit, it will become the thing Terry Crews is most immediately associated with for a majority of viewers fills me with immense sadness. The best thing I can say about Crews' performance here is that he puts forth full effort and mostly keeps the character from sliding into minstrelsy. Huzzah?
Yes, that's damning with faint praise, but I feel like that's my feeling toward “Blended” in general. I know it could be worse, because I've seen Adam Sandler do worse on at least a half-dozen occasions. It sets up its main plot horribly, can't even be bothered to treat Africa with the appreciation of a tourist, is barely ever funny and runs at least 30 minutes too long. However, Drew Barrymore tries hard, a couple of the kids are better than they need to be and there probably isn't any cause for protest from any African advocacy groups. Normally, I'd grade this one a D+, but on the Adam Sandler curve, “Blended” is a C-.
“Blended” goes into wide release on Friday (May 23), though you may find midnight screenings in your neck of the woods.