Blended, the new Adam Sandler comedy, opens this weekend opposite the heavily hyped juggernaut-to-be X-Men: Days of Future Past. Despite the attention that will be paid to the mutant team, and despite a lack of encouraging reviews or good trailers, Blended will in all likelihood quietly gross $100 million or so over the next few weeks, because, with only a handful of exceptions, that’s what Adam Sandler comedies do. Once in a while, Sandler goes out on a limb with some weird, off-putting shtick that recalls his wilder days; mostly, though, it’s surprisingly lucrative domestication at the approximate level of a CBS sitcom.
Blended sort of does both: it domesticates him even further, the point that he looks like a genuinely exhausted working father, but also recalls his past by reuniting him with Drew Barrymore for their third onscreen collaboration. Barrymore is, as any serious Sandler scholar knows, the only actress who has ever connected with him onscreen in a meaningful way (at least in his self-produced Happy Madison guise, which takes up most of his time; Emily Watson, in Punch-Drunk Love, also formed an odd, intense connection with him).
Sandler and Barrymore aren’t a traditional romantic-comedy couple that starts out hostile or at least oppositional before simultaneously winning each other over with charm and banter; The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates both positioned them as sweet-tempered soulmates too polite or shy to overcome instantly the obstacles in their way. Blended mixes up the formula and tries its hand at the oppositional thing, opening on a blind date between the two that goes horribly wrong. But Sandler and Barrymore don’t really know how to antagonize each other (it usually sounds like light teasing), and the movie doesn’t have any bright ideas beyond having them blurt out accidental insults—their attraction staggers back and forth between tentative interest and manufactured faux pas. It’s an odd dynamic, shining an increasingly bright spotlight on the contrivance of Sandler and Barrymore disliking each other. But it’s charming, too, watching two movie stars—particularly one as passive-aggressive as Sandler—so intractably compatible, so unable to fake negativity.
Eventually, Blended settles on the idea that they’re both too committed as parents to bother with the niceties of dating. Sandler plays Jim, a widower raising three daughters; Barrymore is Lauren, a divorcee raising two sons. Divorce is given the implicit ok because Lauren’s ex is an irresponsible, callous cheater; Sandler, of course, cannot be divorced on film. Never has, probably never will be, at least not in a Happy Madison production. Those steadfastly conservative elements of Sandler’s empire remain, as irremovable as the product placement, here mostly for Dick’s Sporting Goods, where Jim works as a manager. At least this means that for the first time in a while, Sandler’s onscreen family isn’t needlessly wealthy: the expensive, exotic location Sandler-qua-producer has scheduled for himself in tandem with a film shoot is actually a plot point. Jim can’t afford to take his girls on a nice vacation, and Lauren doesn’t have time to plan a new spring break trip after her ex cancels plans with the kids. When a last-minute affordable trip to South Africa falls in their laps, the catch is, they all have to share what was booked as a seven-person blended-family excursion.
The movie uses real South Africa locations—Sandler needs his vacation at work, after all—but unfortunately, the primary one is Sun City, a massive (and real) resort complex, which presumably chipped in with Dick’s Sporting Goods to help finance Sandler’s vaca-job. When the families actually venture outside into the permanently backlit, glowy outside (shot with slightly more aesthetic warmth than you might usually associate with a Happy Madison lifer like director Frank Coraci), it looks lovely. Depressing, then, that they spend even more time at a resort that could just as well be in the Bahamas. The movie highlights its chintziness when Jim, on an evening rowboat trip, gets frightened by fake alligators that pop up from the fake rowing pool. Somehow, this isn’t played as satirical. Actually, it isn’t anything; just a little, unfunny comic vignette that has little bearing on anything else in the movie.
All that said, Blended is far more tolerable than Sandler’s other replications of family fun: less gross, less hateful toward minorities, less schmaltzy when it plays the dead-mom card (which it does, often). The movie takes its time building up to the Africa trip, in part because Sandler has reached the stage at which no one tells him his light, half-cute comedies shouldn’t run more than 100 minutes—and in part because the movie seems eager actually to spend time with its characters before plunging them into slapstick incident. It’s especially nice to see that the extra time isn’t forked over to Nick Swardson or Rob Schneider for some grotesque shtick. Most of the Sandler rep players are absent for this go-round, leaving only elder statesman Kevin Nealon as a fellow vacationer, speaking in fragments like a surprisingly amusing SNL bit (oh, and Shaq, because apparently Adam Sandler is friends with Shaq; as he ages, he seems to gravitate more toward nonactors like kids and athletes, and I’ll save the self-esteem analysis of that tendency for another essay. For now, I’m a little wiped from ranking all of Sandler’s comedies, top to bottom).
Blended isn’t as touching as 50 First Dates or as sweetly funny as The Wedding Singer (and both movies are shouted out onscreen with cameos from obscure side characters). But Barrymore really does have a civilizing influence on the Sandman; his moves feel much less lazy when she’s up there clowning around with him. Even when she disapproves, she feels less disapproving than most of Sandler’s onscreen wives in the decade since their last intersection.
That was 10 years ago; maybe Sandler and Barrymore are turning into the mass-market Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. As gender-normative (Sandler’s oldest daughter must be freed from her too-boyish haircut) and uncomfortably Nicholas Sparks-y (Barrymore is approved as a mate for Sandler because his youngest daughter likes her so much) as their new movie gets, after Blended I was ready to see them reunite again. If Adam Sandler insists on behaving himself, Drew Barrymore knows how to make him look good doing it.