Two big star-laden movies open this weekend, and neither are very satisfying. Luckily, there’s a festival of music and film going on in Williamsburg and Greenpoint this weekend! Prescient! Trust me, seeing Titus Andronicus on Saturday afternoon will be way more satisfying than going to either of these movies, even without air conditioning.
Knight and Day: I wanted to like Knight and Day, and I get into the whys and hows of this not happening in my full review. But one of the most surprising aspects of this action-rom-com for me was how fully its special effects yanked me out of the movie, even one that’s not trying to be anything more than a fleet good time. I’ve grown accustomed to middling special effects, because they are used so extensively on such a range of productions, not necessarily duplicating reality or having their own distinct non-reality style. But at their worst, they become building blocks for filmmakers to mount action sequences that they don’t actually have the money to execute. Knight and Day winds up showing several good ideas for action scenes, coherently staged by director James Mangold, but they use so many CG shortcuts that they almost feel like fuzzy, sloppy dream sequences. The movie is cartoonish in tone, yes, but it’s also rooted in Cruise and Diaz, real movie stars giving perfectly decent movie-star performances, and the cartoon vehicles and bad green-screen undermine their flesh-and-blood appeal. I can’t recall another movie where subpar effects alone represented this much of a detriment.
Grown Ups: Adam Sandler’s last broad comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, inspired such hope in me that I wrote him an open letter. Grown Ups warrants no such attention; despite the Saturday Night Live reunion factor, the inspiration of Zohan is almost entirely absent. Sandler has had an amazingly consistent run of hits over the past ten years or so, and as he’s gotten older, a suburban laziness has crept into them: lately, he plays a straight everydude more often than not, and the fleeting sweetness of Happy Gilmore or The Wedding Singer has given away to shameless third-act sentimentality in movies like Click or his redo of The Longest Yard.
Grown Ups goes sentimental almost immediately, waxing nostalgic in a flashback with pubescent versions of Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Kevin James (presumably subbing in for Chris Farley) on a basketball team. Years later, when the coach dies, the crew is reunited for a hometown funeral and Fourth of July weekend at the lake. The movie has almost no story even by loose comedy standards; Sandler and cowriter Fred Wolf need only to configure a bunch of sketches about the SNL boys reconnecting as fortysomethings. But they take this not as an opportunity to run wild, but to write a bunch of weirdly realistic jokes, in the sense that the dialogue realistically imitates the kind of jokes not-particularly-funny people might make. Much of the comedy is built around Sandler and company ribbing each other, executed with relentless formula: zero in on a minor oddity like a large bunion or a dog’s annoying bark or the age of Schneider’s new wife, and riff on it endlessly. This isn’t so different, in principle, from the banter in, say, Knocked Up. But this group riffs with such kicked-back laziness that any little improvisational runs are indistinguishable from the usual listless running gags you’ll find in any Sandler vehicle. It’s a tired flipside of the compulsive joking Sandler so vividly brought to life in Funny People; rather than mining personal unhappiness for material, the characters in Grown Ups just make old-guy complaints about how their straw-man kids are out of touch with life’s simple pleasures, including seemingly unironic nostalgia for their own more distant/abusive fathers.
It’s sort of cute to see Sandler and his buddies sitting around, enjoying each other’s company without too much in the way of false crises; when they crack up at each other’s limp jokes, it may be self-congratulatory, but it also looks real. But this has the unfortunate side effect of making the movie play like a blooper reel. It’s not quite as dreary or forgettable as, say, the Longest Yard remake; there are scattered laughs from cameos by Steve Buscemi and the invaluable Tim Meadows, and Maya Rudolph is a pleasure to watch as Rock’s wife. But the leads all relax to Sandler’s level. Chris Rock, for example, has yet to translate his real-life chemistry with Sandler into a funny onscreen relationship, and seems neutered and misplaced. Even David Spade, master of empty snark, plays more of a generic horndog than his standard wiseass. Sandler is basically the same age as Will Ferrell, yet his comedy seems so much creakier; even Ferrell’s least successful mass-appeal ventures (Kicking and Screaming, Bewitched, Semi-Pro) have more zing. The whole thing feels even more like a treatise on growing old than originally intended.