Heaven help me, I thought this time might be different. Yes, the last several films Adam Sandler has starred in have ranged from barely tolerable to intolerably awful, but it’s not like he makes movies all by himself. “That’s My Boy” was written by David Caspe, creator of TV’s very funny “Happy Endings” — and someone Sandler has never worked with before. The same goes for the director, Sean Anders (whose “Sex Drive” wasn’t bad).
Besides the new collaborators, “That’s My Boy” had an R rating going for it. Nearly all of Sandler’s bad comedies (and his good ones, for that matter, if your memory stretches back that far) have been PG-13 or PG. Having a wider arsenal of swear words and crass situations to draw from doesn’t guarantee more laughs, but at least it changes up the formula, which is something Sandler definitely needed. The last R-rated film he made, “Funny People,” was the best thing he’d done in years.
So it was with a certain level of cautious optimism that I approached “That’s My Boy,” in which Sandler plays the dirtbag father of a young man (Andy Samberg) he spawned when he was 13, the product of a scandalous affair with his teacher. And it was with a significantly greater level of disappointment and heavy-heartedness that I exited the theater two hours later, my spirit broken, my optimism shattered, my soul reborn under a thick, cynical shell.
“That’s My Boy” is yet another putrid comedy in which Sandler plays an aggressive idiot with an annoying fake voice who shows up to disrupt someone’s life, and in which the message of the film turns out to be that everyone needs to act more like the aggressive idiot. (Adam Sandler characters seldom see the need to learn or grow. I assume this is an example of art imitating life.) This time he’s doing a thick Boston-y accent as Donny Berger, a former tabloid fixture who impregnated his middle school teacher in 1984 and has been riding on the fumes of that notoriety ever since. The teacher is in prison, and Donny’s offspring (played by Andy Samberg) has changed his name from Han Solo Berger to Todd Peterson in an effort to distance himself from his icky origins and his Donny-influenced upbringing.
Now in desperate need of cash to pay off tax debts and avoid prison, Donny reaches out to Todd — now a successful financier — on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Jamie (Leighton Meester). Everyone is at Todd’s boss’ lavish summer home on Cape Cod, the perfect setting for an uncouth loudmouth to appear and offend people. Keenly aware that Todd wants nothing to do with him, and that he has in fact told everyone his parents are dead, Donny presents himself as Todd’s best friend (albeit a best friend Todd had never mentioned before).
Next thing you know, Donny’s the best man in the wedding and everyone’s new favorite guy! The joke is that while Todd is normal, nice, and reasonable, nobody likes him much, while they go nuts for Donny, a beer-drinking cretin who adamantly refuses to adjust his mullet-oriented, eff-you behavior for any situation. Everyone in the wedding party, from demure old grandma (Peggy Stewart) to Todd’s square coworker (Will Forte), thinks Donny is a hoot, even when doing so contradicts what has already been established about those characters.
Maybe “characters” is too strong a word. Apart from Todd (who is neurotic and emotionally scarred by Donny’s negligent parenting) and Donny (who is a lewd imbecile, end of story), no one in the film is a “character,” really. They exist as springboards for whatever outrageous, self-consciously taboo-busting thing Donny is gonna do next. If a scene requires someone to be quarrelsome, the person will be quarrelsome, even if he or she was docile in the last scene.
I’ll give an example that represents the rancid screenplay’s festering laziness. When Jamie’s brother, Chad (Milo Ventimiglia), a U.S. Marine, arrives, Todd good-naturedly salutes him. Chad’s response is anger and indignation: a civilian should never salute military personnel. Later, when Donny arrives and does the same thing, Chad happily returns the salute. The comic premise of one character being praised while another is chastised for the same behavior is solid enough, but it doesn’t work when you apply it arbitrarily. Without an in-story reason for the different reactions, it’s a non sequitur, a leap from Point A to Point B with no line between them. The movie does this over and over again, expecting us to laugh just because, well, that’s where the laugh should go.
The other major thing it does repeatedly is try to get laughs by being tasteless — not by humorously employing a tasteless scenario, mind you, but merely by being tasteless. I think there is rich potential in jokes commenting on society’s double standards about underage relationships, where a 13-year-old girl who has sex with her teacher is a rape victim while a 13-year-old boy who nails his teacher is a hero. There is also something to be said for the premise of a child being more responsible than his father. But “That’s My Boy” squanders nearly every opportunity to find real humor in any of this, resorting instead to poo-poo, pee-pee, boners, and bongs. There’s casual racism toward the Chinese household staff — not because it makes any sense for these characters to be casually racist, but because it’s funny to hear people say racist things.
To be clear, I have no problem with making comedy out of forbidden topics. You do have to actually make the comedy, though. Merely presenting an appalling situation — That stripper is fat! That grandma is horny! That man has a potty mouth! — is not, by itself, funny. How do Sandler and his cohorts not realize this? Somehow stretched to an excruciating 114 minutes in length, the film offers seven or eight genuinely clever lines, but they are drowned out by the braying, pointless stupidity that surrounds them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch something funnier than “That’s My Boy.” It’s a video of my mother being torn apart by bears. Good day.
F (1 hr., 54 min.; )
Reprinted from Film.com.