The thing about Disney movies is that no matter what the hero does, we’re supposed to accept that it’s OK, even when it’s actually kind of jerky. That’s Adam Sandler in “Bedtime Stories,” a simple-minded kid comedy directed by Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”) that takes two bad genres — live-action Disney dreck and lowest-common-denominator Sandler humor — and blends them into one unfunny mess.
Sandler plays Skeeter, an “average guy” (Sandler translation: a dumb, crass guy) who grew up with his sister, Wendy (Courteney Cox), in a modest hotel in Los Angeles owned by their father (Jonathan Pryce). Dad was a terrible businessman, though, and he sold the place to a wealthy investor, Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths), who turned it into a luxury hotel but kept Skeeter on as a handyman. Wendy, meanwhile, become an elementary-school principal and is one of those moms who won’t let their kids eat sugar, watch TV, or enjoy life.
Wendy has to go to Arizona for job interviews (her school is being closed), leaving Skeeter to tend his niece and nephew for a week, a duty he alternates with Wendy’s friend Jill (Keri Russell). The kids, Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) and Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit), are pleasant tykes, glad to have fun Uncle Skeeter around, and eager to hear some fanciful bedtime stories.
And at last we get to the point. Skeeter discovers that whatever happens in the bedtime stories that he improvises happens to him for real the next day. It rains gumballs in his story, it rains gumballs in his life. The catch is that it only applies to the story elements suggested by the kids; his own wishes remain unfulfilled. So it doesn’t work for him to say “… and then the handsome Prince Skeeter won a hundred million dollars in the lottery” — he has to get one of the kids to suggest it. In short, he must manipulate his niece and nephew’s imaginations for his own gain.
His desires in life are pretty basic. He wants Nottingham’s hot Paris Hilton-y daughter, Violet (Teresa Palmer), to fall in love with him. He wants a Ferrari. And when Nottingham builds his new luxury hotel, expected to be the largest, grandest hotel in the country, Skeeter wants to be installed as manager. The outrageous part — which we’re supposed to accept without question because, remember, it’s the hero we’re talking about here — is that Skeeter thinks he deserves to be manager solely because he’s been the handyman for 25 years. Never mind that the manager Nottingham has his eye on, smarmy rich dude Kendall (Guy Pearce, embarrassing himself), actually has experience and training in this area. Skeeter is the film’s protagonist, and as such he is entitled to whatever he wants.
I should also mention that Skeeter is a rude lout to Jill for no reason at all. Their first meeting is when he has parked his truck across two spaces, forcing her to park far away while carrying a heavy package. When she quite justly criticizes him for this, he reacts like a snotty brat — but, again, since he’s the star of the movie, we’re supposed to consider it “funny” and “in your face” and say, “Yeah! Tell that uptight chick what’s up!,” even though he’s wrong and a jerk and she is nice and reasonable. And later, when they inevitably fall in love, we’re supposed to cheer for them, stifling our first impulse, which is to despair at how Jill has lowered her standards and settled for a cretin.
The humor, such as it is, remains steadfastly family-friendly; it’s also bland and obvious, centered mostly on humiliating Kendall or making fun of Wendy’s strict parenting techniques. There’s also, for some reason, a CGI guinea pig with bugged-out eyes that gets A LOT of screen time.
The film’s only strong points are the bedtime stories themselves, which take place in the Old West, outer space, and other locales, and are shown to us with dazzling special effects and a lot of creative whimsy. Skeeter, Violet, Jill, the kids, and others show up in the stories, of course, with Skeeter always playing the triumphant hero. Now that I think of it, maybe “Bedtime Stories” itself is just a bedtime story that someone’s making up for Sandler. (“… and then Adam gets to kiss the pretty girl and have his picture on the movie poster!”)
These stories are a chance for Sandler to do his “funny” voices, which the kids seem to like a lot. And don’t worry — Rob Schneider shows up in one of them as a stereotypical John-Wayne-movie Indian. If you’re scoring along at home, Schneider has played offensive caricatures of a Chinese man, a Japanese man, a Pacific Islander, an Arab, and now a Native American. My prophecy that he will one day appear in a Sandler movie wearing blackface and singing “Mammy” is even closer to being fulfilled.
D+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )