But in Grown Ups 2, Sandler reprises his role as... who was that guy in Grown Ups again? Ah, yes: Lenny Feder, according to IMDB. It's almost jarring to hear Sandler nominally referred to by that name in Grown Ups 2, because his character is so transparently modeled on the current incarnation of Sandler as a human being, to the extent that I know anything about him: Lenny is a Hollywood agent, rather than a big-name actor, who was a little wilder in his younger days but has now settled down with his wife and kids. On screen, that wife is played by Salma Hayek, the latest in a long line of impossibly beautiful mates for Sandler (at least Hayek is roughly the same age)—though Grown Ups 2 at least jokes, however weakly, about the unlikeliness of this pairing. "It makes no sense," Lenny notes to their kids, comparing their pairing to something out of a Hollywood movie, yuk yuk. The children are played by the kind of child actors Sandler favors: broad, mawkish, as movie-ish as possible.
The middle-school buddies Lenny reunited with in Grown Ups are all Sandler's comedy buddies from Saturday Night Live and other movies, and they all go through the motion of getting character names: Chris Rock plays a wisecracking, Chris Rock-like guy named Kurt; David Spade plays a sarcastic David Spade-y letch named Higgins; Rob Schneider did play a guy named Rob in the first movie, but he's not in this one which seems a little more insulting when you realize that Melanie Hutsell is (more on that in a moment). The Kevin James character, Eric, seems least incongruous with a different name because James doesn't get the chance to show off much of his trademark physical comedy.
In the supporting cast, though, some actors do indeed play characters with their names — Sandler's longtime buddy Peter Dante, for example, plays Officer Peter Dante, loose-cannon police officer. He acts alongside fellow cop Shaquille O'Neal, as you do in a Sandler movie, because I dunno, I guess the dude is really good at making friends.
And it pays to be friends with Sandler. If you're O'Neal, you get to appear in a wide-release movie on American movie screens, no small feat for a man who starred in both Kazaam and Steel. If you're Dante or Allen Covert or one of those dudes, you get to act in and produce movies that seem to require very little acting or production. If you used to be on Saturday Night Live but maybe can't get a movie going yourself, no worries, for Sandler will hire you—if not for a full-on David Spade style supporting role, than at very least as a goofy walk-on.
Indeed, if Grown Ups was a laid-back mid-nineties SNL reunion disguised as a movie about small-town friends reconnecting, then Grown Ups 2 is a stroll through an alternate-universe Saturday Night Live retirement community. The characters have all moved back to their New England hometown, populated by no fewer than fifteen SNL alumni ranging from respected all-timers (Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg) to onetime stars (Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri) to barely-remembered bit players (Melanie Hutsell, my beloved Paul Britain) make appearances—seventeen if you count the Lonely Island guys who wrote for the show but didn't often appear on camera. Sandler has such fondness for the show where he got his start that he hires people who weren't ever on the show—which he has never returned to host!—with him.
Believe it or not, I—the kind of pointy-headed movie critic I doubt Sandler has much use for—appreciate his sloppy, generous nostalgia, at least in theory. I can certainly envision a movie with funny parts for Maya Rudolph, Colin Quinn, Will Forte, Tim Meadows... even guys like David Spade, sure, why not. But Grown Ups 2 is not that movie. It is, however, slightly better than Grown Ups 1, which as far as I'm concerned remains Sandler's worst and laziest movie. The sequel has a somewhat tighter structure than the first movie's lawn-chair ramble of a weekend; it takes place over just twenty-four hours, on the last day of school (all of the characters have kids) and de facto first day of summer.
This timeframe, combined with the jaw-dropping slackness of the first movie, creates the immediate impression that no matter how much incident goes on during this second movie, nothing much will happen—and for whatever reason (lowered expectations, lowered defenses, the movie theater's air-conditioning feeling more important to this July than July of 2010), it's a slightly more pleasant sensation this time around. Slightly.
But even with the nice little hook of fortysomething dudes experiencing the last day of school from the parent side and ambling through the kind of momentous One Crazy Night that would have defined their teenage selves (at least in a clichéd coming-of-age movie about their teenage selves), Grown Ups 2 still stumbles into some of the dumbest set pieces imaginable: Spade gets put in a big tire and rolls out of control, all through town. The guys have to jump naked off of a mini-cliff into a swimming hole because some frat boys force them to (even though they turned up at the swimming hole so the Kevin James grown-up could do more or less that exact thing). A deer rampages through the Sandler mansion in an interminable opening sequence. It's not the disconnection or poor pacing that drains these scenes of laughs (though those don't help); it's the idea that Sandler and his frequent collaborators Tim Herlihy and Fred Wolf could devise pretty much whatever silly-stupid comic situations they wanted in this entire town with this cast of whoever from Saturday Night Live they want to hire and stitch it into a hit movie and they came up with: uhhh, put Spade in a tire. Or: uhhh, let Nick Swardson loose in a K-Mart, if they'll pay us. They will? Great! That's money for the tire!
I mean, I get it. Rolling David Spade down a hill in a tire is probably pretty funny, if you're there in person and you know David Spade. A CGI tire that purports to contain a movie version of David Spade, well, not as much. As Sandler works to erase the line between his on-screen persona and what I imagine must be something kinda like his actual self (rich, self-deprecating, ribbing, occasionally and sometimes insanely out of touch with when his ribbing turns curdled and mean), he spends less time (or seems to) on, you know, joke-writing. Coming up with funny stuff. Coming up with reasons not to bother with Grown Ups 2.
His aging team does have flashes of inspiration. Sometimes they cover a whole movie, as in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, which I would love to stop bringing up, and will just as soon as Sandler makes another movie nearly as idiosyncratic. Sometimes they're only enough for ten or fifteen minutes, like the Al Pacino bits of Jack and Jill. And sometimes they have the tenor of distant echoes, like the few sight gags and supporting characters in Grown Ups 2 that recall his earlier weirdness (like a "police escort" that O'Neal and Dante provide by driving full speed and shooting their guns in the air out their cop-car windows). That's where some additional and presumably unintentional nostalgia seeps into the movie's haze of I-love-the-eighties/kids-today conservatism. The Sandler of yore would have given, say, the army of frat boys that pit themselves against the older dudes more surrealistic nuttiness. As it is, the movie ends in a slapsticky brawl that attempts to reclaim the violent anarchy of Sandler pictures like Happy Gilmore.
Those earlier Sandler movies might have had passing jokes about outsiders being bald, fat, or having weird eyes or whatever, but the lack of even the merest driving narrative in a movie like Grown Ups 2 moves the put-downs to the center. Characters nudge each other in feats of attempted joke-topping that stay miraculously low and level—the way the actors take turns making lame bald jokes or fat jokes recalls the riffing, reference-heavy oneupsmanship the Apatow crowd, in the way an old man inching along the sidewalk recalls walking. Even a comic actress as wonderful as Maya Rudolph is reduced to shouting insults at a girl who looks like a boy. Ya burnt, I guess?
The weirdest thing about Grown Ups 2, though, is the way Sandler, James, Rock, and Spade often play fantastically idealized elder-statesman versions of themselves, even when they're the temporary butts of each other's jokes. Even after transplanting his family from Los Angeles to New England, Sandler is allowed to keep his mansion, perhaps as a tacit reminder that he's the actual movie star on the premises. Rock and James are both awarded blue-ish-collar jobs so they can pretend to be hard-working; James runs an auto repair business and Rock works for a cable company. (Spade, the sole core member lacking the required domesticity now that Schneider is out of the picture, is said to work part time at a Go-Kart outfit; we never see him there, so as to keep anything too disreputable off-camera.)
This would be a refreshing treatment of unglamorous real-world jobs if all three men didn't have big houses (not as cavernous as Sandler and Hayek's, but still well-appointed), appreciative, attractive wives, adorable and often, the movie reveals in several stupid plot spasms, gifted children. And if the movie didn't turn into an endorsement for having more kids, always more kids, keep that family consuming. Grown Ups 2 winds up moving like a low-effort perpetual-motion machine: in this town, Lenny and his buddies will forever bump into the same two-dozen weirdoes they know from growing up there; the only new people they meet will be whatever additional children they have; and no one has to spend much time doing the work that is constantly implied but never shown. Maybe this isn't a comedy franchise or even an SNL rest home after all: maybe Adam Sandler is dead, and this movie is his vision of heaven, beamed from the beyond onto movie screens across the country.