Just Go with It

What an interesting failure “Just Go with It” is! Plenty of comedies are doomed from the start by bad premises or bad screenplays, but this one actually could have been good — even with this script, and even with this cast. The material is simply mishandled. It’s written as a broad farce — which is a very specific style — but it’s performed as if it were a regular ol’ Adam Sandler-ized romantic comedy. Square peg, round hole, Dennis Dugan is a terrible director, etc.

It’s a remake of the 1969 hit film “Cactus Flower,” starring Walter Mattau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn (who won an Oscar). That film was an adaptation of a very successful Broadway play, which in turn had been adapted from the French play “Fleur de cactus.” All of these were farces: shallow characters tell outrageous lies, create fictions, perpetrate schemes, narrowly avoid detection, slam one door just as another one opens, enter a scene just in time to get the wrong impression, eventually get their comeuppance, and then everyone goes home happy.

“Just Go with It” follows the same basic premise as the previous versions. Danny Maccabee (Adam Sandler), a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, avoids commitment by telling his dates he’s a married man, which I guess some women go for. Then he meets someone he actually wants to be with, a too-young-for-him blonde named Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), but can’t date her seriously because he’s saddled with this fictional wife. His solution is to tell Palmer he and the missus are about to be divorced. Palmer wants to meet the soon-to-be-ex-wife; Danny recruits his receptionist, Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), to play the part for one evening; hilarity is intended to ensue.

Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling’s screenplay adds quite a few more twists and turns to the plot, but these alterations are in the same light spirit as the original. While posing as Danny’s wife, Katherine accidentally mentions her children (she’s a single mom), which Palmer naturally assumes must be her and Danny’s kids. Now she wants to meet them, too, so Danny has to bribe Katherine’s son and daughter to go along with the charade for an afternoon. Somehow this is parlayed into a trip to Hawaii for everyone — Danny, Palmer, Katherine, the kids, and Danny’s cousin, Eddie (Nick Swardson), who’s pretending to be Katherine’s new boyfriend. In Hawaii, they run into an old college rival of Katherine’s, which requires a deception-within-a-deception, and the lies keep piling up.

(The rival is played by Nicole Kidman. Did you know Nicole Kidman was even in this movie? Well, she is.)

You can see how this is absurd, improbable stuff — which is just right for a silly farce. In a good farce, the humor comes from the characters’ very human and plausible reactions to the very ridiculous and implausible situations they find (or put) themselves in. This would never happen, we think. But if it did, that is indeed how a person would respond. And so we laugh, because we recognize the familiar human foibles in the midst of all this nonsense. (I hope you’re taking notes, because this will all be on the midterm.)

The trouble with “Just Go with It” is that the director, Dennis Dugan, a regular collaborator of Sandler’s, treats this like a straightforward Hollywood comedy, like it’s just another big-and-dumb Sandler production. He thinks he’s making “50 First Dates” or “The Wedding Singer,” when the script is more like “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “Charley’s Aunt.” Dugan fundamentally misunderstands the material.

I suspect Sandler does, too. One-dimensional buffoonery is what’s actually called for this time, and Sandler’s doing his Normal Guy routine. The character is a cad and a creep, a habitual liar who’s not even very good at lying. Sandler needs to embrace Danny for what he is; instead, he’s in denial, trying to make us think Danny is a regular fella.

Strangely, many of the others seem to get it. Jennifer Aniston is terrific in her first scene as the fake wife, playing up the absurdity of the character (as well as the character that the character is playing, if you follow me) with comic gusto. As Katherine’s children, young actors Bailee Madison and Griffin Gluck are likewise enthusiastic. Nicole Kidman gets it exactly right, playing Katherine’s old rival as a haughty, vain, cartoon. If everyone else in the cast played their characters as broadly and directly as Kidman does — and if Dugan resisted the urge to squeeze “emotions” and “feelings” out of it all — I swear, this movie would work.

Instead, it’s a colossal misfire. We sigh with exasperation at the stupidity of the characters and at the elaborateness of their schemes, when with just a little tweaking we’d be reveling in it, laughing as we waited for the house of cards to collapse. This is like a Beethoven sonata being performed with electric guitars. You get what the original intention must have been, but man, does it ever not work when you play it like that.

D (1 hr., 56 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a lot of vulgarity, some innuendo, brief partial nudity.)