Grown Ups: Ageism Justified

06/25/2010 11:24 AM |

Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Chris Rock in Grown Ups

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart bring out their inner grownup to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week, Dennis Dugan’s Grown Ups makes them never want to grow up. Ever.

HENRY:
So, Ben, I think you and I have three choices now that we’ve seen Grown Ups: quit our jobs (what’s the point of engaging with The Culture if this is what it’s producing?), commit suicide (how can we bear to co-exist with this shit?) or leave America forever, like after some nightmare George Bush re-election. That last one seems the most reasonable answer, as Grown Ups wants nothing more than wrap itself in the stars-and-stripes, down a beer and belch. But if this is The Real America, I want to burn my American flag boxer shorts!

That’s what really bugged me about this movie, Ben. I mean, sure, I was pissed off about a lot of things: the horrible writing (Adam Sandler’s first line was, literally, “I’m the biggest agent in Hollywood”), the laziest plotting I think I’ve ever seen in a movie (“what do you want to do today?” “go to a water park?” and then they’re at the water park), the relegation of great actresses and comediennes (Maria Bello, Salma Hayek, Maya Rudolph) to shrewy scenery, and the smug self-amusement of five of Hollywood’s unfunniest men (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Chris Rock), each of whom spend the movie trying to find different ways of making fun of each other based on their race and physical appearance. Ben, did you know that Kevin James is fat? Or that Chris Rock is black? That Adam Sandler is Jewish? That Rob Schneider is short? I’m sure you do now! Isn’t that funny? Mentioning identifying characteristics about other people that we’re usually encouraged not to mention?

But no, the most galling part of Grown Ups is how it takes all of its faults and makes them synonymous with “America!,” the way it equates privilege, wealth, consumerism, mild racism (Spanish sounds like “blahblahblahblah”), poor health (these fat fucks can’t even finish a basketball game), arrogance, ignorance, environmental indifference (their water comes out of plastic jugs), reactionary sexual politics and moral hypocrisy (a little girl with a sensitivity for animals and a taste for hamburgers) with the good ol’ US of A. I mean, we might make those sorts of jokes sadly, in private, with embarrassment, right Ben? But this movie takes it as a source of pride. The Stompers’ “American Fun” plays over the end credits, and it could be the overseas title for this movie, whose episodic structure is set up to provide lots of recession-era escapism…I think. The five comedians, with their diegetic wives and (in most cases) kids, reunite after 30 years to spend a weekend in a cabin by a lake to mourn the loss of their childhood basketball coach, who was so pathetically lonely that he had no one closer to him than kids he coached decades ago—with whom he didn’t even keep in touch—to task with spreading his ashes. While there, they reorganize their priorities; they learn to stop working and simply enjoy the fruits of their privilege: go to water parks, restaurants, barbecues, play outside, have marital coitus, drink beer. They hang out, make (bad) jokes, and complain about their kids’ gadget addictions—all they do is play video games and send text messages (and abuse the nanny). They don’t even have respect for chutes and ladders!

Of course, that’s a byproduct of how they were raised, by incurious, materialistic parents who created a litter of little monsters and then look around for someone else to blame. (Like, uh, when we live in a culture with an unsustainable thirst for oil, and then some oil spills into the water and we spin around with our pointin’ fingers at the ready?) I couldn’t have despised all of these characters and their spoiled children any more. We’ll be lucky if advocates of radical Islam don’t station themselves outside of Grown Ups screenings, Ben, because it could become a great recruitment tool for The Enemy.

BEN:
Henry, though I couldn’t agree with you more regarding Grown Ups’ flabby chest-thumping, waste-generating, KFC bucket helmet-wearing, flag-raising American xenophobism, I’m a little offended that you failed to mention Sandler and co-writer Fred Wolf’s most offensive portrayal of a non-American: the Canadian lifeguard at The Water Park. In keeping with the film’s celebration of obesity, he’s ridiculed for being absurdly fit, a mocking gesture that’s reinforced when he approaches the American ladies in soft focus slow motion and speaks in an emasculatingly high voice with stereotypical Canadian hoser accent. Worse still, he says he’s from Saskatchetoon, a cartoonish conflation of Saskatoon (a city) and Saskatchewan (the province in which it’s the largest city), an added offense that’s likely lost on most American moviegoers, who tend to be alarmingly ignorant of Canada’s prairie province geography.

But who the fuck cares, right? As long as the characters know where Milan is (Spade: “Milan… Italy?”), the Feders (Sandler and Hayek) have some cosmopolitan destination they can decide not to go to when they witness all the infantilizing American magic taking place in their very own (weekend rental’s) back yard. Our early glimpses of their L.A. McMansion recall, most conspicuously (aside from Funny People, that is), the topsy-turvy class parody of Billy Madison. Sandler’s sons send the nanny text messages rather than get off their asses when they want hot chocolate, which they promptly scold her for not making to their liking. The family’s youngest, meanwhile, crashes daddy’s sedan while trying to use the car’s computer navigation system to reach heaven. Technology—not bad parenting, goodness no!—has made them maladjusted, but the film’s return to a falsely innocent Americana of beer, burgers and basketball isn’t really to help the kids become decent people, but rather to facilitate the parents’ fantasy of total regression to their childhood selves. That the final conflict for the main couple has to do with the date on which airplane ticket reservations were canceled pretty much sums up how few risks these grown ups are in the habit of taking.

The families’ expensive holiday at that paradigmatic lakefront sanctuary of American origins—more Wet Hot American Summer than Walden—offered fleeting, tantalizing glimpses of what, for me, was the only thing about Grown Ups that could possibly be construed as not completely repulsive: its acute middle-class shame. All five men are deeply uncomfortable in their class position and their masculinity, money and sex being so tightly bound in our libidinous economy. This visit to the small town where they all grew up makes such insecurities all the more painful. Rock is the castrated house-husband to a successful, workaholic, emotionally unavailable wife (Rudolph); James is unemployed, masquerading as the owner of a car dealership (Cadillac, of course); Spade is a developmentally arrested perpetual partier whose POV permits the film’s slimy, practically pedophilic voyeurism; Schneider is a gross-out gag-spewing New Age caricature who drives a Smart Car (penis size joke!); and Sandler is a rich Hollywood agent pretending that his sons aren’t spoiled brats and their nanny is a foreign exchange student. Conveying just the right degree of bad middle-class taste proves even more nerve-wracking than getting the kids off their gadgets.

The quintet’s repressed class consciousness manifests as Dickie Bailey (Which, really? Why not just Marx Prol Smitty?) and his barely-seen squad of townies—the grown up kids whom Sandler et al. beat in an opening credits basketball game flashback—now equally man-childish and aching for a rematch. But even these moments of deep-seated uncertainty are salvaged for the status quo in the end, when the remaining middle-class players throw the game to the less socio-economically ashamed working-class folk. “Let the poor people win one,” seems to be our benevolent bourgeois protags’ solution, “if it’ll keep them in their place. Now let’s go freshen up with a bottle of artesian glacier water.” Later they all drink beers under the July 4th fireworks and everything is A-OK, one nation under its god (money). I guess we could talk about all the sexism (professionally successful women are awful, huh?), but fuck this shit, Henry, I’m immigrating to Saskatchetoon. You with me?

12 Comment

  • I’m with you in the broad strokes, gentlemen, as this is a lazy and reactionary movie even by Sandler standards; one thing that stuck out for me was the scene where Sandler and James, I think it was, reminisce about how if they did such-and-such when they were kids, their dads would’ve just smacked them or whatever. Are Sandler and company really so nostalgic for good-old-fashioned abuse? Creepy, and also dull for Sandler after that Zohan movie, which I found very funny (if hit and miss). His movies have always had a semi-disingenuous just-plain-folks Republican streak; even Zohan promotes cultural understanding through the building of a minimall.

    However, reading something like this, I have to wonder: do you ever feel as if you’re going down a checklist of what is and isn’t allowed in a good (correct) movie? Characters aren’t supposed to eat burgers, make fun of each other for physical characteristics, or be out of shape. (Also, nitpick: is the Sandler abode in this movie a McMansion? Or is it pretty much just a regular mansion?) By focusing on this stuff, you sort of make the actual crumminess of the filmmaking sound secondary to ideology. The Canadian lifeguard, for example: I’m not sure how the movie is “making fun” of him for being absurdly fit, since the wives all drool over him, try to get him to come over to them, and later seem to fantasize about him while having sex with their husbands. It does make fun of his Canadian accent, and I’m not saying any of this is very funny; like maybe eighty-five percent of the jokes in the movie, it’s a lazy echo of Sandler’s worst habits as a writer and performer. But, seriously, you guys are *alarmed* by ignorance of “Canada’s prairie province geography”? That’s alarming to you? I know it’s supposed to be inherent and obvious how poorly the movie is made, but you might see how this might create the impression that many of these thoughts were formulated before the movie started; possibly before it was even (so lazily and shoddily) written.

  • Well, Jesse, since you allude to the “semi-disingenuous just-plain-folks Republican streak”, I think you may have answered your own complaints. We all know that summer popcorn movies embody an ideology, even when through things like tone, and “safe” choices made for entertainment value. Sutton and Stewart (and me, as their editor) have made the decision that there’s no burger too low-calorie, no Canadian slight too slight, to consider in an explicitly political reading that functions, I think, as a useful (and at times self-parodic and amusing) corrective to an increasingly blase postmodern entertainment industry. If you think it’s shrill, well, like I said, I think there’s some posing going on too. Like for instance Henry would never *really* burn his stars-and-stripes boxers.

  • Playing devil’s advocate, though, isn’t there something sort of blase and postmodern about a possibly-self-parodic political reading of a movie’s every detail?

    Regarding the movie itself, I actually would’ve liked to see the movie’s painfully “good-natured” guy’s-guy ribbing had a little more of an edge. Henry, you mock the movie’s simple-minded running jokes about Schneider being short, Rock being black, etc., but really, material that in any way addressed Rock’s blackness would’ve been a welcome change. Instead, they tiptoe around it and barely let Chris Rock himself make jokes about being black (one of the few big laughs in the movie comes from his little face-off with Tim Meadows about which one of them is “the black guy” from this town and which one is “the other black guy”). Same goes for Sandler’s Jewishness; was that really beat into the ground? I don’t recall more than an offhand mention of it (while, to again praise my beloved Zohan, Sandler’s last broad comedy really took the nice-Jewish-boy-man schtick in a fascinating direction). Instead, they stick to easier stuff like a swollen toe or getting fat. A Sandler-crew version of the old-man-barbershop scenes in movies like Gran Torino or, uh, Barbershop, would at least show a little more effort and personality.

    I guess I’m saying that in some cases, to politicize this movie may be to actually give it entirely too much credit.

  • Is it blase and post-modern? Well, I appreciate how self-aware Sutton and Stewart are in these features. It’s fun for them (and for me), and I think it comes off. It’s a tricky balance to strike; I can only imagine how many more miffed comments they’d get if they were totally humorless about it.

    “I guess I’m saying that in some cases, to politicize this movie may be to actually give it entirely too much credit.” The feeling here, I guess, is that to let the movie be as apolitical as it clearly wants to be (but isn’t, no movie is) is to give audiences too little credit (we hope).

  • To get back to the Canadian lifeguard: No, Jesse, I’m not *really* alarmed that American audiences aren’t familiar with “Canada’s prairie province geography,” though I am a little alarmed that you took this sentiment at face value. As concerns his sculpted chest, arms and abs, the ones that make the wives drool, they also made everyone in the audience at the screening I attended chuckle. Does anyone save bodybuilders actually find such localized muscle control attractive? His jiggling pecs and biceps were, it seems to me, a very haphazard and typically lazy way of underlining just how unappealing the wives find their husbands. (A much more effective device, for instance, was Buzz Lightyear’s serenading Spanish Mode setting in Toy Story 3, which activated a sensuous id to Buzz’s military propriety.) That they’re turned on by this parodic stock character hardly suggests that the audience is expected to react similarly.

    As for the Mansion vs. McMansion question, yes, you’re right, it was definitely a mansion (possibly the exact same one Sandler inhabited last summer in Funny People, in fact).

  • I guess that’s sort of why I think this level of analysis can be distancing or just plain confusing. You’re sort of serious about the Canadian character being offensive on several levels, but I’m supposed to get that you were joking by saying the geography stuff is also offensive — a line that sounds a little less like a joke when you follow it with “who the fuck cares, right?”

    Anyway, no, I don’t think the audience is supposed to find the muscled Canadian fellow super-hot… but nor do I think his physical fitness is really the object of fun in that scene, as you describe. Your own explanation describes it as a (lazy, definitely) joke on these ladies and/or their husbands, not a ridiculing of his physical fitness, especially when the only thing that turns them off from the guy is his supposedly incongruous high/Canadian voice (again, an extremely lazy and stupid joke, for sure). A nitpicky point, sure, but I think that’s why some of this comes across as a bit muddled. I understand the instinct to grab at the many, many things wrong with the movie, but to complain about how the movie endorses obesity and mocks physical fitness, I don’t know, that just sounds like the young-and-skinny blues to me. ;)

    I did also wonder it was the same lot as Funny People, and if any slight differences were attributable to Apatow semi-inexplicably (though not ineffectively) hiring Kaminski to shoot that movie, and Sandler probably hiring some guy from his NYU phys-ed class. In a weird way, this whole movie plays like a misconceived apology to any undemanding Sandler fans who saw Funny People and didn’t like that it was long and often (gloriously, says me) unlikable: don’t worry, I’m not like *that*! I’m really a down-to-earth, child-loving rich guy who would never check his Blackberry during a tender moment! I don’t obsess over darker comedy material! I crack jokes with my buddies, just like you!

  • No movie is apolitical? I’m scared that I might be reading this website because it is a unique glimpse into a pretentious and self-important world that I cannot experience anywhere other than cyberspace.

    It seems somewhat telling that the reviewers are so eagerly defending their words by saying things like, “…I am a little alarmed that you took this sentiment at face value.” What better way to prove your review was rubbish than by essentially telling the audience that they didn’t – and couldn’t, most likely – understand the depths of your sarcasm or humor, or sarcastic humor.

    There is no doubt in my mind that “Grown Ups” is a horrible film, but is it because they are flouting environmentalism by drinking water from plastic bottles? Oh boy.

  • @Ray Wilson: Yes, that is precisely why “Grown Ups” is a horrible film. That and Kevin James (dude’s just not funny).

  • Ben, I guess my point is that characters drinking from plastic bottles is *imprecisely* why Grown Ups is lousy, because lots of good movies have plastic bottles in them, but not so many good movies have, you know, incredibly lazy writing or performances that depend on the actors sitting in lawn chairs and razzing each other.

    Kevin James is a weird case. This seems like a weird thing to say, but have you seen Hitch? Dude is a good physical comedian. He’s surprisingly graceful and just plain good at pratfalls. And in Hitch, a movie I didn’t much like, I at least found James funny because he was a little removed from that regular-joe shtick. But now he’s just one of the boys.

  • Jesse, I haven’t seen Hitch, but was kind of looking for an excuse to watch it, and now I have one, so thank you.

    And of course, I agree with you, critiquing the politics of a film like Grown Ups without addressing how very poorly it was made is, in a strange way, giving it more credit than it deserves. Excessive editing and inept screenwriting aside, though, the environmental politics were especially horrendous: so many plastic bottles, so many big-ass cars (and poor Rob Schneider gets ridiculed for driving a low-mileage vehicle).

  • I was very offended by the Canadian joke. I myself live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I don’t know what the hell Americans think we are like… I hope they weren’t at all serious in their interpretation of a Canadian. I didn’t understand the joke at all to be honest. Canadians sound just like Americans. We have no freaking accent. Man does that ever peeve me. In fact, we tend to speak better and more eloquent English than you do! I’ve never met a Canadian that said “eh?” either.

    As for the guy being “fit”, that went over my head too. Just like any other city, we have people here that are obese, morbidly obese, slim, anorexic, athletic….

    If you were to know just one thing about us, America, know this; We are the exact same as you!

    P.s. America shouldn’t make fun of Saskatchewan or the prairies. These are the only provinces that like Americans. Attack the eastern provinces please, because they really resent you…..

    P.s.s. With all of that said, I love America. It’s my favorite country next to Japan. So don’t think I don’t!

  • Wow you all over examine everything. Not to mention the joke about the lifeguard WAS NOT so much a insult to Canadians as it was meant to be for the typical steriod using muscle builder. Not to mention the fact that later that night the wives apparently were thinking about the lifeguard during sex considering Kevin asks sandler were saskatoon was during your so called horrible unspeakable drinking water from jugs scene.

    P.s. if saskatoon was going to start hating us over something so silly they can seriously move to the dark side for all I care. I don’t really care or not. Not to mention America is constantly used as humor in films. The difference is we know what jokes are… jokes.