Big Daddy


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directed by Dennis Dugan Big Baby Toward the end of the newAdam Sandler comedy Big Daddy-and don't worry, I'm not spoiling any plotdevelopments a dog couldn't anticipate-the irresponsible fratboy hero's adorablefive-year-old ward climbs into the witness box at a custody hearing and tellsthe court what he "learned" from the hero. The kid tells the courtthat the hero taught him how to pick up chicks and pee in public, etc., allof which is sorta funny, considering how much mayhem we've seen the two committingtogether. But the end of the kid's list is odd: He says the hero, an arena-rockfan, also taught him "that Styx is a great band that never got its duebecause critics are cynical assholes." Gawrsh, Adam-could thisline actually be about something besides Styx? Since Sandler is clearly oneof those fabulously successful movie stars who can't stand the fact that notevery living human on the planet thinks he's a genius-and since one burly youngmale viewer at the screening I attended responded to the kid's Styx line byyelling, "It's true!"-I'll go ahead and take the bait. In case you missed my epicmonograph on Sandler and his last opus, The Waterboy, I'll summarize:I think Sandler is a very funny professional cutup, one who has a direct andundeniable sympathy pipeline to his fans. But I defy any of those fans to explainto me, with a straight face, why his movies are great, or even fitfully excellent.Despite their steadily escalating box office tallies, they strike me as strictlyGood Enough for Government Work-no more memorable than Don Knotts pictures fromthe 60s, or pretty much any movie made in recent years by an ex-SaturdayNight Live star who isn't Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers. And unlike Murray, Myersor Murphy-or Jim Carrey, whose first three films weren't remotely as great ashis performances-I don't see anything in Sandler's work that convinces me thathe's an actor, or even an inspired screen presence. Onstage, he can be paralyzinglyfunny, especially when he's mincing around with a guitar doing his Raffi-goes-to-college-and-smokes-a-doobroutine. But that's onstage, where he can be completely in control of the show,letting the levels of silliness build slowly and then explode, sending his fansinto crazed fits of laughter. Onscreen, he's not reallyin control; he's just protecting himself as a star by hogging every scene andkeeping active, funny bits of business out of the hands of his costars, whoare rarely allowed to score points off him. Despite his simmering comic hostility,which can be very funny at times, Sandler is as stiff and closed-off an actoras Seinfeld in the first couple of seasons of his sitcom, and much less generousto the other actors onscreen with him. He's still a stand-up comic-just onewho happens to deliver his material in character with other characters standingaround looking amused or aghast. Unlike his comic betters listed above-and Sandler'spal and SNL mate Chris Rock, who made a blistering impression as themotormouthed cop in last year's Lethal Weapon 4, and did it in character-Sandler'sacting, if you can call it that, exists in a hermetically sealed universe. Thoughsuperficially vulnerable and troubled, his heroes exist mainly to be validated;Sandler the writer-producer surrounds Sandler the actor with supporting characterswho either root for him from frame one, or else profess to hate him but ultimatelycome around to his way of thinking because he's so gosh-darn charming. Like The Wedding Singer,Big Daddy, which gives the Sandler hero a cute boy to protect and goofaround with, is a half sappy, half-obnoxious hybrid that's intended to expandhis range-in other words, a date picture. It's supposed to bring in large numbersof skeptical women who think Sandler is cute and likable but find his pee-pee/poo-poohumor and retarded man-child characters too off-putting, while still satisfyingyoung male fans who plunked down their money because they think the pee-pee/poo-poo/retardedman-child thing is fuckin' hilarious and never, ever, ever gets old. The plot is simple, whichis as it should be: Sonny Koufax (Sandler), a wastrel law school graduate who'sstill living like a rich, party-hearty college kid thanks to an accident settlement,is saddled with an adorable moppet named Julian (played by twins Cole and DylanSrouse) who is unexpectedly dumped on his doorstep. The kid might or might notbe the illegitimate son of his lawyer roommate, Kevin (Jon Stewart), who isoff in China for a month on business. To cover for his roomie, Sonny lies toChild Protective Services and says he is the roomie. Sonny says he'sjust going to watch Julian until Kevin gets back, but soon he's fallen for thekid and decides to adopt him (while still pretending to be Kevin). The heroslowly learns how to love and how to be responsible; i.e., Adam Sandler growsup. He doesn't really, though.By my stopwatch, about four-fifths of the movie plays off the same gag: Sonnythe makeshift father figure teaches little Julian how to act like an irresponsibleslacker. When Julian pukes on the floor or pees in the bed, Sonny covers itwith newspaper. When they're out together and Julian needs to pee and is turnedaway by uncaring restaurant owners, Sonny tells him to pee on the side of thebuilding, and joins in to get the kid's nervous bladder going. Maybe I'm naive, but I sortof expected that after a while, Sonny would get serious about his responsibilitiesand start acting like a grownup, as opposed to just telling other charactersthat he's starting to act like a grownup. The sight of an adult acting likea gleefully irresponsible child can be hysterically funny, Homer Simpson beingthe obvious example. But The Simpsonsis a cartoon, as are most Jim Carreymovies; Big Daddy is told in a fairly straightforward, realistic style,has credibly real supporting characters and seems to be set in our world. Ergo, after 80 minutes ofSonny either letting the kid run wild or actively encouraging him to misbehave,I started to get the queasy feeling that what I was seeing wasn't the comictale of a young surrogate dad who grows up, but a feature-length justificationfor the star's refusal to do the same. Sandler and screenplay collaborator TimHerlihy, who rewrote an original script by Steve Franks, seem terrified to letSonny actually change; maybe they were afraid Sandler couldn't be funny if hewasn't acting like a punk and shaping the storyline in ways that make peoplewho are alarmed by the hero's spastic misbehavior look like anal-retentive killjoys. But if Bill Murray provedanything in the classic Groundhog Day, it's that a selfish, irresponsiblehero can become a decent person and still be fun to watch, as long as the materialis good and the star has the brass and the acting chops to go all the way-toactually show the character changing and growing, instead of just telling usthat's what's happening. For a movie about a young man learning to love a would-beson, there's curiously little chemistry between the hero and his ward. The kidis basically a prop-something director Dennis Dugan can cut to and draw an instinctive"awwww" from the chicks in the audience. A dog would've worked justas well. Big Daddy is irritatingfor reasons that go beyond the star's failure of nerve. The Phantom Menacediscrimination-watch crowd ought to have a field day with this movie, thoughI suspect they've already done the conscience thing this summer and can't bebothered to get outraged again now that the troublesome characters are humanand specific. Big Daddy's rogues' gallery includes a wacky, drug-friedhomeless man with rotten teeth (Steve Buscemi in a cameo), an illiterate Indianfood delivery guy who's always hanging out at the hero's apartment (Rob Schneider,doing the same all-purpose foreigner accent as always) and a black spectatorat the trial who's the butt of an O.J. joke. Two of the hero's best friendsfrom college are gay men who happen to be lovers, and early in the movie I washeartened to see consummate cool white-guy Sandler defending them when anotherfriend admitted to finding gay people creepy. Unfortunately, every timewe see this couple afterward, they're feeling each other up, talking about muscletone and flirting outrageously even in public. In the scene where they helpbabysit the kid, one of the lovers is sitting on a couch admiring Brad Pitt'sabs in Thelma & Louise. Is Sandler expressing a secret wish or what?The film's portrayal of homosexuals reminded me of a straight friend's commentthat if he could be a woman for one day, the first thing he'd do is take hisclothes off and look at himself in a mirror. I don't doubt that BigDaddy will make staggering amounts of money, and that the box office total,coupled with reviews like this one, will further convince Sandler that he'sa comic genius who's pure of soul and won't be appreciated by the critics inhis lifetime. Still, I suspect the box office and critical success of the AustinPowers sequel might rattle Sandler's cage a bit. At least, I'd like to thinkit will, because it should. Sandler is charismatic, likable and in some waystalented, but as a movie star, he's lazy; he wants people to think he's evolvingeven though he clearly isn't. Myers, on the other hand, is proving his versatilityas a comic actor and blossoming into a great screen presence. Both the Powersmovies are larded down with easy scatological humor, and product placement inthe sequel is noxious, but both films have a couple dozen brilliant lines ("When I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds-pretty standard,really") and at least a dozen sequences so original and fall-down funnythat people may never stop talking about them. There's plenty to think of whenyou think of Myers. When I think of Sandler in Big Daddy, all I see isa pucker-faced star-of-the-moment who's well aware that he's stumbled onto alucrative cinematic racket and wants to protect that image at the expense ofeverything else, including his own potential. Aren't we all little peopleon the inside? And shouldn't people be judged by the purity of their souls ratherthan their height? And do you think that when Anita Ekberg was shooting thesex scene in the new Belgian film The Red Dwarf, in which the pint-sizedhero mounts her from behind and humps her furiously, that she thought to herself,for a fleeting moment, "For this I worked with Fellini?" The answer, Anita, is yes; The Red Dwarf exists because its director, Belgian filmmaker Yvan LeMoine, saw a lot of Fellini movies and decided to make a film that might becredible as a half-baked parody of Fellini if it wasn't so solemn and piousand misty-eyed. The main character is a dwarf named Lucien Lhotte (Jean-YvesThual) who works at a legal firm and specializes in writing fake incriminatingletters for use in divorce cases. He is also a sensitive and talented poet,though not many people get to know him well enough to find this out. He likesvisiting the circus, and it is at one such circus where he falls in love witha pure-of-soul 12-year-old trapeze artist named Isis Columbe (Dyna Gauzy), butof course, since she is a kid and he's a dwarf, their relationship remains platonic.(Ah, those Europeans and their charming tales of unrequited love between adultmen and barely pubescent sirens!) The plot thickens: Whiledelivering an incriminating letter to one of the firm's clients, played by Ekberg,Lucien finds himself powerfully attracted to the woman. He impulsively getsnaked and shares a passionate interlude; pretty soon he's locked in an obsessiveaffair, humping the zaftig lady's brains out on lunch breaks; the hormones boilingthrough his peanut-shaped head fog his brain, and he begins behaving oddly atthe office, acting like-gasp!-an individual. But one day the client decidesto reconcile with her husband and Lucien gets drunk, puts on one of her wigsand strangles her to death. Then he loses his mind, quits his job, blows townand takes refuge at the circus. The dwarf who always wanted to be seen as somethingother than a circus character is forced to assume the identity of a circus character!The irony is exquisite, no? As photographed by DannyElsen in stark yet textured black and white tones, The Red Dwarf looksgreat-like a Fellini movie circa 1960 or so-and it's certainly grotesque andstrange enough to hold one's attention. Thual is a riveting screen presence,not because he's a good actor-he isn't-but because he looks like an itsy-bitsyteeny-tiny William F. Buckley Jr., which definitely ups the creep-out quotientwhen the character is humping Anita Ekberg or announcing his resignation bytaking a big dump on his boss' desk. (The turd is in the frame, which shouldremove any doubt that this movie is artistic.) But it's hard to say what thefilmmaker is up to-or even if he knows for sure what he's up to. He's lost inhis own head. He's made a fetish object for fans of Fellini, or maybe for fansof substandard, Fellini-esque movies, but except for the sex scenes, the deskturd and some other John Waters-type elements, the movie is more soft-headedand icky-sweet than it wants us to think. It's easy to see Robin Williams intragic clown mode playing the dwarf hero in an American remake, with specialeffects help from Industrial Light & Magic. Or maybe Adam Sandler. Framed Baby talk: If you're interestedin fertility issues, or even if you just like hearing stories of pregnanciesagainst the odds, check out And Baby Makes Two, an endearing documentaryby Judy Katz and Oren Rudavsky that's playing June 25-July 1 at the Quad Cinemas.Made for PBS, it runs about an hour, which means it falls into that netherworldbetween feature-length documentaries and shorts, but it's satisfying all thesame. Though the subjects are women in a support group who are desperately tryingto get pregnant, the filmmakers keep things relatively honest. They know thematerial is so emotionally loaded that they don't have to push things; theycan just sit back, observe and let the audience groove on the emotional highsand lows of the women's journeys. Great use of Bonnie Raitt's 1989 cover of"Baby Mine" from Dumbo. Small words: The newspaperads for The Red Dwarf lead off with a blurb from the summer's biggestbox-office name: George Lucas. "Heroes come in all sizes," it reads."You don't have to be a giant hero. You can be a very small hero."A small hero who dumps on a desk and humps Anita Ekberg from behind? The statementcame from Lucas' interview with Bill Moyers in an April issue of Timemagazine and has zippo do to with The Red Dwarf. I've seen a lot of out-of-contextblurbs in my day, but this one takes the cake. The Belgian-dwarf feces cake,that is.





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