Back in the days when Adam Sandler would warble those idiot-nerd ditties on Saturday Night Live's ''Weekend Update,'' I used to marvel at the way that his act took off from the knowing limpness of his material. The bit wasn't the song it was Sandler's geeky yet fearless triumph over the song. That's what made him a star.
I got a similar feeling watching Big Daddy. Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a 32-year-old law school graduate who works one day a week as a tollbooth clerk. This spoiled, clownish, insult-dropping underachiever takes a break from his couch-potato life to form a friendship with a 5-year-old tyke named Julian (played by identical twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse), who has been deposited at the door of his Manhattan apartment. (According to the Department of Social Services, the boy is the illegitimate child of Sonny's absent roommate.) This sounds exactly like the sort of bogus high concept so many former SNL comics have gotten stuck in. From the get-go, we know that Sonny will bond with the kid because he's an overgrown kid himself. Here's the redeeming catch: Unlike, say, Chevy Chase, Adam Sandler really is a kid. As an actor, he doesn't need to dumb himself down to act like a lovably slobby arrested-development case. It's the essence of the Sandler élan.
In Big Daddy, the pair wander through the streets and parks of Manhattan, where Sonny teaches Julian to pee on walls and trip Rollerbladers with a strategically placed stick. The ultimate indulgent dad, he lets the kid rechristen himself ''Frankenstein,'' shoot lethal slingshot pellets (result: many dead pigeons), and make a meal out of 30 packets of ketchup. The movie winks at the fact that Sonny, in effect, is raising a sociopath. Still, by the time he demonstrates the magic of make-believe by pretending that Julian can turn invisible simply by putting on sunglasses, I half expected the two to get hauled off to Life Is Beautiful's work camp, so that their affection could really take flight.
Much of Big Daddy looks like it was made up on the spot, but Sandler, with his bad-dog eagerness to get caught in the act of misbehaving, pulls you right through it. He never quite musters the mad, moronic zip he had in The Waterboy (the real '90s Jerry Lewis movie), and Big Daddy doesn't generate a lot of big laughs. It has a throwaway sweetness, though. Joey Lauren Adams, from Chasing Amy, plays the attorney who falls for Sandler, and if their relationship seems like a purely functional fairy tale, the one between Sonny and Julian is weirdly genuine: a slapstick testament to fatherhood as second childhood. B-