For Adam Sandler, movie comedy is rock & roll — not just a way to make people laugh, but a way to strike a pose of scruffy defiance. At 45, he’s still playing overgrown boy-men, but his characters these days aren’t just emotionally stunted basket cases. They’re jerks and rubes and loutish vulgarians, the more hideously unpresentable the better. They’re characters who almost dare reviewers to say, ”That’s stupid and obnoxious!” (And if you do, you’ve fallen for the bait; you’ve become like the scolding parents in a ’50s anti-rock screed.) Since we’ve all grown used to seeing Sandler portray these incorrigible idiots, in a sense he has to keep upping the ante. It’s his equivalent of playing that power chord just a little bit louder.
Watching Sandler in That’s My Boy, his latest assault on subtlety, good taste, and other values that a critic like me is supposed to trash the star for dumping on, I can’t say that I laughed a lot (though when I did laugh, it was big and loud). But on some level I marveled at the conviction that Sandler pours into playing a character like Donny Berger, a boneheaded, loud-mouthed alcoholic loser from Boston. Wearing his hair in a greasy ’80s shag, dressed in vests and jackets that make him look like a runt Bruce Springsteen, Sandler, make no mistake, doesn’t phone it in. He delivers every single line with the unspeakably annoying rasp of a rusty nail scraping on your brainpan. He also gives Donny what you could call a full range of moods: angry, irritated, pushy, noodgy, grasping, wheedling, whining. A real charmer. Just to make sure we know what kind of role model Donny is, hardly a scene goes by in which he doesn’t have a Budweiser in his hand, and the vulgarities, too, spew out of him like beery foam. A lot of actors, by now, have learned to do a Boston accent, but Sandler gets something else: the blinkered, bellowing high dudgeon of a certain kind of in-your-face proletarian slob whom you can still find hovering in Boston sports bars. He makes Donny the Joe Six-Pack from hell.
Long ago, Donny enjoyed a moment of tabloid infamy. Back in 1984, when he was just a teenager in gold chains, he got seduced by his sexpot high-school teacher, and when it came out that they were sleeping together, the scandal of it all made national headlines. The teacher, sent to prison for statutory rape, even had Donny’s baby, whom Donny named Han Solo and (once he turned 18) raised as a single parent. But he was such a dismal father that the son disowned him. He also renamed himself Todd. As an adult, Todd is played by Andy Samberg as a persnickety hedge-fund manager about to be married to a stuck-up American princess (Leighton Meester). And that, of course, is when Donny comes crashing back into his life.
That’s My Boy is one of those comedies about a walking irritant, like What About Bob?, in which the joke — ultimately spun off from Green Acres — is that the ordinary guy at the center of everything keeps trying to distance himself from the pest who has arrived to ruin his life, but everyone around him…adores the pest! The more Donny disgraces himself, the more he lowers himself (how low does Sandler go? Just wait for the scene in which Donny pleasures himself to the photograph of an old lady), the more he makes the kind of cringe-worthy sexual jokes that Andrew Dice Clay would have turned up his nose at, the more that everyone in Todd’s circle thinks he’s the life of the party. I only wish it were a fresher party! Donny wins everyone over, for instance, by reviving ”Wassup!” Seriously? That’s what Sandler now regards as a mischievous joke? Still, for a while, the lightweight, open-faced Andy Samberg makes a good squirmer. His Todd is so neurotically nice that he doesn’t even experience his own exasperation, even as we can see the steam coming out of his ears.
Where Sandler compromises his whole comedy-as-rock-&-roll thing is that he’s so into making Donny a big teddy bear inside, a guy who just wants to bond with his son, that the movie starts to lose its edge. It also stretches out far too long. (Did it really need to clock in at nearly two hours?) Donny takes Todd and his friends out for a bachelor party, and it’s on this voyage into the night that Todd loses his inhibitions and starts to get won over to the ways of excess — to the Donny Way. Lots of jokes about strippers and happy endings follow, and Todd gets so unhinged that he barfs all over his fiancée’s wedding dress. But the movie was a lot funnier when Donny and Todd were foils. Of course, never underestimate the importance of guy-on-guy sentimentality to the Adam Sandler universe. It’s his way of making his fans feel as if he’s high-fiving them, or maybe giving them a group hug. But Sandler, bottom line, is too good at playing louts like Donny to work this hard getting us to like them. B-