Friday, June 25, 2010

Grown Ups: Ageism Justified

Posted By and on Fri, Jun 25, 2010 at 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.

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.

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?

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