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Over the course of a film career spanning more than thirty years, Adam Sandler has developed into quite the comic obscurant. On the one hand, Sandler has signed his name to half a dozen sophisticated, relatively subtle, indie comedies, such as “Spanglish”, “Punch Drunk Love” and “Funny People,” even delving into the realm of politically charged drama with 2007′s “Reign Over Me.” On the other hand, though, Sandler must also be held responsible for some of the most asinine, sophomoric, underdeveloped schlock-fests that have ever entered the suspiciously sticky DVD players of pimply, teenage, glue sniffers. Having established the development of these two aesthetic extremes in Sandler’s extensive catalogue, it is only fair to point out that 90% of his movies sit comfortably in a middle-of-the-range space between “artful” and “vomitous.”
And yet, no-one would dare accuse Happy Madison Production’s newest offering, “That’s My Boy,” (directed by Sean Anders) of cinematic fence-sitting.
The plot of the movie, without giving away the twist– and it is a doozy– is this: mathematically gifted, 12 year old delinquent, Donny Berger is involved in a sexual liaison with his 22 year old teacher, Mary McGarricle, the products of which are a son, Han Solo, and a brief period of gainful notoriety. Skip ahead twenty years or so, and Donny (Adam Sandler) is estranged from the renamed, and very successful, Todd (Andy Samberg) and living in obscurity with an enormous debt owed to the IRA. To ease his financial troubles, Donny brokers a deal with a talk-show host to organize a reunion between himself, his son and his imprisoned ex-lover (Susan “what was she thinking?” Sarandon.) Seeing a notice in the paper advertising Todd’s impending wedding to WASPish socialite Jaime (tragically underused Leighton Meester), Berger decides to reconnect with his son in the hopes of tricking him into the show. The rest of the movie is 114 minutes of sperm jokes, violent diarrhea, and rampant racism, sexism and a host of other “-ism”s that might, if listed in full, have prolonged Ferris Bueller’s seminal shower by a good 20 minutes.
But, leaving aside the smaller problems of the movie– not that Sandler’s inability to follow-through with a single potent punchline in a film that markets itself as a goofball comedy is by any means a small problem — “That’s My Boy” has one, major flaw that doomed the movie even in its most fledgling stages of development. And that is this: statutory rape is not hilarious.
The thing is, irreverence and the tackling of taboos through humour can be well done. In recent times, Hollywood has produced a number of extremely funny and often beautifully made, dark comedies that tackle sensitive, socio-historical issues head on. Standout examples of semi-recent subversive laugh-a-minute films include, Morris’ “Four Lions”, a riotous indie film about Muslim-English suicide bombers, Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” a movie that dared to poke fun at the Third Reich, and, most topically, Reitman’s “Juno,” which revolves around the subject of teen pregnancy.
Yet, there remains a vast difference between any one of the movies above and ‘That’s My Boy”– quite apart from the fact that those films are hilarious, and the only funny thing about the Sandler movie is that anyone with functioning eyes and ears paid to see it– because, where the other movies have the good sense to not make fun of the central kernel of struggle within the movie, the characters of “That’s My Boy” barge into the dark world of sexual abuse and bumble about in there without the weakest flashlight of self-awareness. To put it another way, “Four Lions” makes jokes about acts of faith, but not faith, “Inglorious Basterds” mocks Hitler but not the holocaust, “Juno” plays with the physical state of pregnancy in high-school, but not the emotional toll of growing up fast. By contrast, “That’s My Boy” does not discriminate between pressure points within the incredibly traumatic subject of statutory rape and its consequences, and makes the entire underage teacher-student relationship — the inciting incident that creates the tension for the whole film– into a big, colossally unfunny, joke.
Somewhere, very, very deep down inside the soul of this uncharismatic well of one-liner ejaculate, there is something that needs to be said. Indeed, Sandler manages to pull off a few, incredibly sparse, genuinely touching incidences between himself and Samberg in which there is a momentary glimpse into the unique perspective of a tragically young dad trying valiantly to bring up a son while going through his own, rocky, coming of age journey. Those flashpoints of honesty between parent and child, in conjunction with a series of scene stealing performances by the utterly charming Vanilla Ice– who should have “[flown] like a harpoon daily and nightly” away from this movie–, may almost have redeemed the rest of the film. Unfortunately, they are, more often than not, quickly smothered by shots of obese prostitutes firing pool-balls from their hoo-has at mentally challenged yokels.
Previously, I had assumed that Sandler continued to produce this kind of movie, the kind of movie firmly entrenched within the “vomitous” camp of his stylistic spectrum, because he has no respect for his audience beyond the money they persist in offloading into his already overflowing pockets. Now, post-”That’s My Boy,” I know this to be the case, and, perversely, this knowledge makes me feel both better about this specific movie and about Sandler’s movie making career as a whole. Ah, yes indeed, free market capitalism is alive and well.
Image Courtesy of That’s My Boy