That’s My Sandler!

06/15/2012 4:00 AM |

That’s My Boy
Directed by Sean Anders

In That’s My Boy, Adam Sandler does something that isn’t at all miraculous, but may seem like it for a few minutes at a time: he shakes off the indifference that has characterized the better part of his comic work for the better part of a decade. It’s become film-crit boilerplate to remark that Sandler’s post-Funny People output bears increasing resemblance to the stinging parodies Judd Apatow and company concocted for that film, but frankly, the likes of Merman and Redo, realistically hacky as they’re made to appear, look far more ambitious than many of his slack recent efforts (indeed, the film from his last batch that most resembles those fake-movie goofs is Jack and Jill, and though it’s not much good, at least Sandler actually gives an enthusiastic, specific drag performance, rather than screwing around in khaki shorts).

Most of those laze-abouts feature their star playing a suburban dad; That’s My Boy jumps backward and then forward to subvert that routine. We see Donny Berger as an asshole teenager whose fantasies about his teacher Ms. McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino) inexplicably come Penthouse Letters true. After a series of not particularly funny trysts, he fathers a child; she’s sent to prison; and his tabloid celebrity makes him even more insufferable—and ill-suited to parenting the son left in his care. Donny grows up to be played by Sandler; the son he names Han Solo leaves home at eighteen, changes his name to Todd Peterson (Andy Samberg), and becomes a hedge fund manager, claiming his parents have died. When Donny spots his estranged son’s wedding announcement in the paper, he sees a way out of his now-dire financial straits, and turns up for the celebration.

That’s a lot of set-up for what’s basically just an odd-couple comedy, pitting the slob-stud dad against the neuroses-filled son. But it gives Sandler something to engage with onscreen, rather than issuing wan faux-wisecracks at the expense of Rob Schneider or whoever. Here, his profanity-flecked, Boston-accented dialogue has a slurry rhythm; even when the lines aren’t that funny, his readings often are. Straight man Samberg by design has less to do, but he’s physically expressive, giving Todd’s uptight nerdiness strains of cartoonish anxiety. When the movie gets down to the business of teaching disreputable lessons about ditching your meds and going out binge-drinking, it’s stupid, irresponsible fun.

Indeed, Donny drinks more than any of Sandler’s characters since Billy Madison, and maybe more; it’s as if Billy never received his belated education and continued partying long after the money dried up. In that sense, That’s My Boy finds Sandler engaging with his own youth, far more playfully than when invoking cranky-rich-guy nostalgia in movies like Grown Ups. The movie positions Donny as a tabloid relic of his time: the same late-80s/early-90s period where Sandler himself was coming up in comedy. It’s a convenient excuse for throwing on the cheese-rock tracks that always dot his soundtracks and call up Vanilla Ice for the as-himself cameo slot usually filled by John McEnroe, sure. But Ice is actually pretty funny (he becomes a go-to topper for running gags), and his time-capsule bond with Donny is oddly affectionate; much of That’s My Boy feels like an early Happy Madison comedy gone to seed.

That is to say it eschews the light surrealism of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore; its weirdness is mangier and more debauched. The move to an R rating (almost all of Sandler’s comedies are PG-13) looks on its surface like a concession no one asked for; it’s not as if his other movies were deemed insufficiently vulgar. But maybe Sandler really was constrained by his version of family-friendliness, because That’s My Boy is rowdier and funnier, more inventive in its vulgarity, than any of his broad comedies since You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. This one lacks the high-low Robert Smigel satire of Zohan; there’s no sight gag as memorable as the four or five funniest John Turturro bits from that movie. But while it sits below that glorious (if still hit-and-miss) 2008 anomaly and the best of his early work, That’s My Boy could still compete with Sandler’s more tolerable mid-period movies.

Let’s be clear: in doing so, it does not transcend his usual formula. This isn’t Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People, or even the more sophisticated silliness of Will Ferrell at his best. If you have “weird old lady,” “bit parts for other SNL alumni,” “bursts of extreme violence,” and “Nick Swardson” on a checklist of why you never want to see another Happy Madison picture ever again, you can safely mark those boxes, skip this movie, and move on. But the formula, as nominally supervised by company newcomers Sean Anders (directing) and David Caspe (writing, at least before the de rigueur in-house punch-ups), is executed with energy amidst some typically shaggy storytelling. The wedding-weekend framework gives the movie some easy momentum, even if it means dashing toward a no-girls-allowed clubhouse (if I haven’t yet mentioned Leighton Meester as Todd’s fiancée, it’s because I don’t have any more idea of what to do with her character than the movie does—though its lax attempt to figure it out gets points for sheer strangeness).

The movie, then, doesn’t exactly exit Sandler’s comfort zone. Even playing a louche reprobate in low-vanity mode, he self-aggrandizes a little; by its end, the movie is proudly uncritical of Donny (and even at the beginning, the movie is reluctant to see him as worse than a lovable goof). But it does hint that maybe Sandler’s comfort zone doesn’t have to be such a deadening place to visit.

Opens June 15