Monday, December 20, 2010

Groan-Ups: How could this have gone so wrong?

Some thoughts on Grown-Ups, directed by Dennis Dugan (2010).

As I’m sure is the case with many people my age, I feel a disconnect between what is habitually offered up as cultural product and what speaks to the fragmented sensibilities of my age demographic. I recently turned thirty, which means I went from being treated to a smorgasbord of quality Saturday morning animated programming in the early eighties to watching the marketers’ laser-like focus move onto more profitable demographics – namely, preteens with loads of disposable allowance and no responsibility tugging at their dinero.

When I jumped ship from waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the cartoons to fighting my body to stay up late to answer the siren song of Saturday Night Live, it was a thrilling time -- not just for me, but for the show. Mike Myers et al were on the way out, leaving both an indelible mark on the show’s brand of comedy and a gaping void of headlining performers. Other than vague memories and glimpses that I’d caught at various points in my earlier years (Paul Simon ambling morosely onstage for his monologue in a turkey costume before I knew who Paul Simon was, or Chevy Chase telling me who he was and who I wasn’t), I was pulled in as a regular viewer as upstarts and dynamos like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Rob Schneider, Tim Meadows, and David Spade were making it their own. That was my SNL, and these actors helped shape my identity and my comedic tastes.

If that image takes you back and makes you chuckle, you know what I’m talking about. And that stunned, delirious and awakening-to-new-possibilities look is pretty close to the one I wore when I first saw a poster in the cineplex for the film Grown-Ups.

I indulged in the certainty that this film would undoubtedly be a success in every way that mattered. How could it not? Sandler, Rock, Schneider, Spade, James (hunh?)! It was, in the parlance of pre-crisis Wall Street economists, ‘too big to fail’. But it did fail, enormously. Grown-Ups scored an irredeemable 10% on, and its baffling suckiness inevitably leads one to question the judgment of its players and purveyors. I humbly present to you my thoughts on why and how this film went so wrong.

Grown-Ups opens with a tense youth basketball game in which five friends are lead to small-time victory by their inspiring coach. After this scene, we’re brought to the present, some thirty years later. The coach has passed on, and the boyhood friends all head back to the cottage resort town where they used to party for the funeral. This time, however, the wives and children come along, they’ve all grown older and softer, burdened by the weight of their successes and failures, hammered by what Lincoln called ‘the artillery of time’.

Sandler plays the straight man, a successful Hollywood agent, whose lavish lifestyle has turned his two boys into spoiled debutantes. Rock is wasted as a henpecked husband, and his character’s growth through the film entails him telling his wife, a gloriously pregnant Maya Rudolph, that he just needs to be treated like a human being. Spade is the requisite man-child that can’t settle down and wants to live in eternal drunken adolescence. Schneider plays the earnest hippy that nobody else takes seriously, the only member of the group that doesn’t go in for the emotional abuse that passes for camaraderie in this circle, and represents one half of the least clouded and deranged relationship of the film.

And then there’s Kevin James. Some might say he belongs with this crew. I wouldn’t. Don't get me wrong, King of Queens got me through some dark times. But when I first saw the trailer, I considered the possibility that maybe if I squinted my eyes during the film, I might be able to pretend that that was Chris Farley falling from a rope swing or fitting into a wetsuit as though it were a sausage casing. The role seemed tailor-made for Farley, and indeed, it was. IMDB tells me that Sandler actually wrote the script in 1997 with Farley included in the planned cast, but postponed the project indefinitely when Farley passed on. But seeing Sandler move ahead with this project with someone else in Farley’s place (someone who isn’t from the same generation of comedy and yet who is so clearly meant to channel Farley) seems insulting to everyone involved, and to the memory of Farley himself. It’s kind of like when Newsradio decided to push on after the passing of Phil Hartman – which in itself is admirable – but decided to try to fill the void with (another SNL veteran) Jon Lovitz. I’m all for healing and moving on with things, but watching Newsradio with Lovitz play the sardonic middle-ager only caused me to miss Hartman, just as watching Grown-Ups with Kevin James playing the clumsy but well-meaning fat man just made me miss Farley.

Grown-Ups is a curious beast and dumbfounds with its missed potential. As a film, it doesn’t seem to fully occupy any one role, and I was at a loss as to who might be its intended audience. It had the right premise for what could have been a home-run family film, teaching kids and adults about what really matters – but the explicit references to sex and drugs keep this from being the case. Further, the objectification of women (the camera-worship of Schneider’s attractive daughters contrasted with the denigration heaped upon his dehumanized unattractive daughter, for example) wouldn’t do anything to stem the body image issues increasingly faced by little girls these days. And yet it has these moments that strive to be tender lessons in life and love, aiming to be directly didactic to the youth of today, somewhere amidst the torturous breast-milk gags. That being said, it also fails as a movie aimed at adults. The comedy is far from being cutting-edge, and even falls short of the standard that these actors set for the industry twenty years ago. It begs the question of whether Sandler bothered to update his 1997 script to account for the comedies that have marked the evolution of the genre up to this point. The banter between the men and the quips that fly back and forth present nothing new to the viewer, and the actors split their time trying to appear convincing as buffoons or real human men, and can’t quite manage either. So you have a film that isn’t suitable for youngsters, and yet isn’t funny to adults. That leaves the people in the middle, being the people who enjoyed Pineapple Express, and Grown-Ups is no Pineapple Express.

I will say, though, that it was refreshing to see a film in which the characters routinely laugh at their own jokes – as happens in circles of friends. Since a weekend with old friends would consist of non-stop jokes and gags that, to outsiders, wouldn’t be all that funny, it’s only fitting that the laughs follow, and the director, Dennis Dugan, lets the camera linger in these instances. Think about it – how often do you see characters laughing at each others’ juvenile jokes, as you would with your own best friends?

The script also hints at character elements that never get fleshed out, leaving the viewer pondering themes that are invoked but never resolved. For example, James’s character seems to suffer from some urinary problems, and while this is indicated several times, it never reaches any kind of satisfying punchline. It takes him a fair bit of time to ‘make a sissy’, as it’s called in the film, and when he finally manages to produce a stream, someone quips that it sounds ‘like a diesel truck turning off’. What does this mean, exactly? From my extensive Movember research, though, it sounds to me like he suffers from prostatitis – which could have been a comedy goldmine. Another example of this trailing off is a strange subplot involving Lenny’s maid, who is brought along to help with the kids. Inexplicably, Lenny tries to hide the fact that the woman is a maid, choosing to present her to Kurt as an exchange student who can’t speak English. It seems there is some danger in Kurt meeting or being around a maid, but we’re never privy to exactly what.

Furthermore, the characters are paper-thin, to say nothing of the women characters in the film. Again, this would be par for the course for a Happy Madison production, but it prevents the film’s serious moments from having any real effect. Schneider’s character, Rob Hilliard, is the only one that is half-believable in this regard during these scenes. In fact, he’s the only one that seems honorable in any sense – and I’m not saying that just because he’s vegan (see my previous blog posting for more on this trend). He seems to be the one with the most unconditional love for his children; he doesn’t emotionally abuse his friends or go in for cheap laughs; he has an open, honest and loving relationship with a woman who just happens to be much (much) older than he; and he contributes to the funeral service in his own genuine new-age way (while the others snicker in the pews and place bets on the finer points of his contribution). Of course, his friends think he’s putting it on, and he is teased mercilessly throughout the film. He is a figure of fun that is relegated to third-row status in the group’s pecking order, along with Spade (both as a character and as an actor – see the group’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, posted on YouTube). In the end, though, Rob Hilliard is his own person, and flies his freak flag proudly – unlike James’s character, who hides the fact that he just lost his job (seriously un-funny and un-funnily serious) because he develops an inferiority complex any time Sandler’s Lenny is in the room, or Spade’s character, who projects a callous and in-control partier persona that crumbles when he is overtaken by the drink.

One of the more disappointing scenes in the film comes in an inevitable basketball rematch with the local boys who lost the tournament thirty years ago – a loss that has apparently kick-started their downward spiral into the dregs of American society. Another SNL dependable rounds out the locals’ basketball team, and this allows a face-off between two very talented, proven and consistent comics – Tim Meadows and Chris Rock. These are two very successful African-American actors who have been consistently funny individually and when they appeared (sort of) together in the Tales from the Barbecue sketches or (sort of) together in Everybody Hates Chris, and yet, in this film, as they square off on the basketball court, we get what feels like the comedic equivalent of soggy breakfast cereal. I can only give a rough recount of their dialogue here, because I wasn’t going to waste another six dollars on renting this film just to write it down, and no one the world over felt that this scene was memorable enough to merit being uploaded to YouTube (and that’s saying something). Here goes:

Rock: “Who are you?”
Meadows: “I’m the black man in this town.”
Rock: “No, you’re not. I’m the black man in this town.”
Meadows: “No, I’m the black man in this town. People see me, they get scared.”
Rock: “When people see me, they start running.”

And that’s about it. I wonder if these two guys chatted in Rock’s trailer afterwards and told each other that they ‘really nailed that scene’, or mused on the fact that they weren’t scripted to be the best basketball players on the team, instead playing second fiddle to Adam Sandler and Colin Quinn (actually, Rock’s character is quite bad at basketball in the film – another element that could have been mined for laughs and would have been, as far as I know, pretty original). And don’t even get me started on this guy:

As I said earlier, it’s not cutting-edge stuff. But these guys aren’t exactly known for producing cutting-edge stuff: I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry was about 15 years behind the times. I don’t think anyone batted an eyelid when Sandler and James played firefighters who pretend to be gay to score employment benefits, even though they probably thought they were being trailblazers and likely patted themselves on the back for providing a service to the gay community. I suppose we’ve come to expect mindless fluff from these actors, as that’s the bulk of what they’ve produced over the years. Like the grown-ups they portray, they’ve settled into stale routine, afraid to shake things up for fear of coming out on the losing end. Which is really too bad – in my humble opinion, these actors have shone the brightest when they took on roles that diverged from their usual tired output. Think of Sandler in Reign Over Me, or better yet, Punch-Drunk Love, or Rock in I Think I Love My Wife. It seems to me that their celebrity and their long-term critical success would have fared much better had Sandler decided to play this a little differently.

Imagine this movie without the kids, without the spraying breastmilk, without the predictable jokes about 80’s music and making out, without the empty platitudes about family, and without the physical shtick that has become bland in this post-Jackass comedy landscape. Oh, and without Kevin James. Imagine a serious piece about men coming to terms with real problems in real ways; give Schneider the lead and let him play a serious straight man, and let Spade play someone who isn’t trying to crack wise for an hour and half. Imagine something that’s a little more The Big Chill and a little less Big Daddy. It might not have been a blockbuster, but it definitely would have scored higher than 10% on the Tomato-Meter. A film like that could have confidently called itself Grown-Ups, unlike what we’ve been given. There is nothing grown-up about this film at all – instead these actors hash out the same brand of comedy that they’ve been peddling for twenty years, even though the subsequent generations of comics that they influenced have rendered them obsolete. It makes you wonder if Sandler and company realized that the audience they hoped to please with this film is made up of people that, since seeing them burst onto the scene with SNL, have actually grown up, and now look for humour that goes beyond the likes of what we saw in Happy Gilmore (which was really something back then, and stands as a comedy classic).

For me, and likely for others my age, it’s a reminder that you really never can go back to those golden days. An SNL reunion movie (as this was touted to be) will always disappoint, because tastes change, comedy changes, and audiences grow up. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson says, you can never step in the same river twice.

Thanks for reading.

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