One could be extremely cynical about the arrival of a new Adam Sandler vehicle. It would be as easy as writing that previous hackneyed sentence. For a man who has for the most part quite rightfully been the target of a lot of scorn and derision for making a bunch of movies that look and feel more like lazy paid vacations than actual thought out comedies, Sandler has pretty much had everything bad that could be said about him stated out in the open already.
I kind of grew up with Adam Sandler. The “good” Adam Sandler. I was one of those kids who wore out a VHS copy of Billy Madison, and I lost count of the number of times that I saw Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer in theatres. I can even find some things to defend about Little Nicky, but strangely enough I have precious little nostalgia for The Waterboy. Those early Sandler movies still have a certain ramshackle cheeseball quality to them that I still find endearing even when I have an extremely hard time defending any of his more recent efforts.
So maybe my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt when I say that his latest paid vacation, the South African set Blended, isn’t that bad of a movie. It’s more in step with Sandler’s older, vastly more likable films while still combining the sometimes suspect family values of some of his more recent efforts. A lot of that could be repairing him with Drew Barrymore, his co-star from The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, which next to You Don’t Mess With the Zohan was the last decent film Sandler did (even that was ten years ago). There’s an actual effort being put in, and really the only problem with the film itself is that it’s way too long and feels about three script drafts away from actually being onto something.
Following a disastrous blind date at a Hooters, widowed sporting goods store manager Jim (Sandler) and a single mother who works as a professional organizer named Lauren (Barrymore) develop a real hatred for each other that extends to his three daughters and her two sons. When Lauren’s co-worker flakes on taking a trip to a South African resort with Jim’s boss in one of the decade’s greatest comedic coincidences, both Jim and Lauren pounce on the chance to impress their kids with a cool vacation. Lo and behold the trip includes just enough tickets for both families since the resort caters specifically to “blended families” and it was originally intended to…
You know what? The heck with explaining it. Not only does it not matter in the slightest, but I’m pretty sure that by now you can figure out that hijinks ensue and that Jim and Lauren will realize that they secretly don’t hate each other. In fact, the film’s biggest problem is that it feels the need to explain itself at all. The film takes an almost unconscionably long 40 minutes to even get everyone to Africa. There’s absolutely no reason for this movie to clock in at just a shade under two hours, and nothing that happens at the outset is even worth mentioning with the exception of a scene where Jim has to return Lauren’s misplace credit card. That scene works because Sandler and Barrymore are an unbeatable comedic team.
Few actresses can stand up to Sandler’s laid back, cutting, sarcastic and borderline insulting characters with any degree of conviction. Really, Barrymore is the only foil he has ever had who can go toe to toe with him. That includes his frequently cameoing buddies, almost all of whom are absent here except Kevin Nealon as a resort patron with a trophy wife and a brooding stepson. Once the film gets them to Africa and places them on more amicable terms, the film finally starts being fun and silly in the same way that Sandler’s most memorable efforts often feel.
But those first 40 minutes are quite the hurdle, primarily because none of the kids are that interesting and Sandler and Barrymore aren’t very good at pretending they hate each other. Each kid is given a different personality quirk (one of Sandler’s daughter was named Espn and was pushed into being a tomboy, another sees their dead mom, one of Barrymore’s kids is hyper and the other’s a horn dog), and absolutely none of it matters. If this film were made at the height of Sandler’s initial popularity, the film would have had the opening bad date, two scenes of explanation as to how they got to Africa, and then spent the rest of the time going for gags. Blended starts off so dull, but it gets to a fun point, so I almost suggest showing up 40 minutes late because you would lose precisely nothing.
Sandler and Barrymore work best when they can be effortless, and that’s mostly because Sandler never puts in that much of an effort. He can’t pretend that he doesn’t like Barrymore, so she has nothing to work with, leaving the film mostly adrift while it figures out how to explain the outlandish premise. But once they actually get a chance to play off each other without having to explain very much, they nail it like they had never been apart.
Then the film abandons any pretense of caring about any kind of plot once the vacation starts, and everything feels pretty amusing by Sandler standards. There are a few great laughs to be had along the way, most of which come from the always scene stealing Terry Crews as a narrator-slash-lounge singer who just seems to be everywhere Sandler and Barrymore go. The film also, quite surprisingly, deflects any real criticisms of racial insensitivity by setting everything at a resort that would have already been over the top to begin with (anyone who has ever been to a resort that caters exclusively to foreign tourists will know exactly what I am talking about).
The film kind of shoots itself in the foot once again once it returns to the States for another 20 minutes or so after they leave Africa so everyone can deal with the plot thread revolving around Lauren’s douchy and aloof ex-husband (a smarmy as ever Joel McHale), but this feels a lot more earned since it’s essentially the final act of The Wedding Singer at a kid’s baseball game. That works a lot better than the opening, but I never thought I would say that the weakest parts of a Sandler film are the ones where he’s not openly taking a vacation.
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