ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT MOVIES

'Blended' continues a love-hate relationship with Adam Sandler

The ever-enigmatic Adam Sandler exceeds intentionally lowered expectation in 'Blended'

There are movies you love, movies you hate, movies you love to love, movies you love to hate and some sliding scale in between of awfulness, indifference and awesome. And then there are the movies of Adam Sandler, which seem to exist on their very own plane of bad taste and questionable intentions.

Personally, I love them. Or I want to, anyhow, but just can't. So I hate myself for hating Adam Sandler movies.

And I'm not sure what it is I want from them that I am not getting, what would make up the idealized version of the Adam Sandler movie I seem so desperate for. He has already given so much, in a career of remarkably reliable success and longevity now running on more than 20 years. After all, his early effort, "Billy Madison," featured a full-blown musical number and a hallucinated human-sized penguin. His more recent works have explored in their way the anxieties, pressures and foibles of middle age, maturity and fatherhood. Though the conventional wisdom is that Sandler lazily churns out puerile comedies while merrily counting his money, he has perhaps secretly matured without many of us even recognizing it.

Who would have ever thought that sneaking in important, real-world concerns against the onslaught of weekend after weekend of mindless summer movies would be the new Adam Sandler film?

Yet there it is, as "Blended" finds him playing a widowed father of three girls who becomes inadvertently entangled with a recently divorced mother of two boys played by Drew Barrymore. A terrible blind date, derailed mostly by false conclusions and a lack of communication, leads to a series of misunderstandings and complications that find the lot of them sharing a luxury vacation to a South African resort. (It could happen, right?)

Amid the slapstick set-piece set-ups of Sandler riding an ostrich or Barrymore in an out-of-control parachute, they both come to reevaluate what they are looking for in a partner. Overlooking the film's slightly retro attitude toward gender roles and parenting — boys need fathers, girls need mothers — things first begin to thaw in a re-meet cute scene of startling sweetness in which they run into each other in a late-night drugstore. Sandler haplessly tries to buy feminine product for his oldest daughter while Barrymore is gamely looking to replace her son's girlie mag centerfold she inadvertently destroyed to ensure his privacy and trust.

Other recent Sandler films have dealt with the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage ("I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"), Jewish identity and the immigrant experience ("Don't Mess With the Zohan"), the divide between how you once saw yourself and the person you became as an adult ("Grown Ups" and its sequel) and how to define maturity ("That's My Boy"). Those all sound like smart satirical movies invested in the contours of modern life, yet the nonconfrontationally self-assured Sandler house style doesn't labor over ideas, leaning instead to easy entertainment with an eye to letting the audience off the hook. Albert Brooks he is not.

That's why from a critical perspective, Sandler has been most lauded for the drama-tinged roles made outside his own filmmaking universe for more respected writer-directors — in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love," James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" and Judd Apatow's "Funny People." Strict authorship on his own straight comedic vehicles can be more problematic, as the voice and style of his sensibility tend to dominate regardless of the credits, even as he has never formally directed a film and only sometimes is included in the writing credits. ("Blended" is directed by Frank Coraci, who previously directed Sandler and Barrymore in "The Wedding Singer," from a script credited to Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera.)

As clearly signaled by the current film "Neighbors," this same tricky transition of moving forward from slob humor to something more reflective of the complexities of adult life is also being faced by Seth Rogen. He co-starred with Sandler in "Funny People," of course, with Rogen playing the young acolyte and protégé to Sandler's comedy film star who had lost touch with reality. That the trailers for the ridiculous fake films in "Funny People" bear a disconcerting resemblance to plausible Sandler vehicles is a joke everyone can be in on.

In "Neighbors," Rogen co-stars with Rose Byrne as a couple struggling to adjust to the lifestyle changes presented by their newborn child, moving on from the carefree partying of earlier days. There is a scene in which they argue over which of them is to be the responsible one and which is to be the careless Kevin James in their relationship.

They might just as easily have been saying which is to be the Adam Sandler of the relationship were it not for a parallel concern that they are still cool. Adam Sandler has long been willfully and purposefully not cool, wearing his out-of-touchness as an everyman's crown.

And it is even worth noting that last week the style pages of The Times posited the sports jerseys and comfort fit clothes worn by Sandler make him an unwitting participant in the anti-style movement known as "normcore." Self-consciously unself-conscious to the point of being totally on-trend — a classic Sandler move.

Sandler recently appeared on the David Letterman show to promote "Blended" and in many ways it neatly encapsulated much of the ongoing Sandler conundrum. He set up a video of himself in Africa as showing that moment that "changed everything I'm about, it made me a better man," and then just showed grainy footage of him horsing around in front of some elephants.

At one point Letterman said to Sandler, "you really have figured out show business, as well as life, my friend." Pause on that for a moment, someone of Letterman's stature looking to Sandler with genuine appreciation.

I feel like I know Adam Sandler somehow even though I have never met him — for years he has not given interviews to print publications, a move that in itself connotes a media savvy sharper than his doofus persona would let on. Rather, because he seems so much himself in television appearances and remains so connected to his core screen persona that it is as if I have been hanging out with him for years. He now gives small parts to his children, and the end credits to "Blended" include a song credited to "The Sandler Family."

In my review last year of Sandler's "Grown Ups 2" I compared Sandler to Tyler Perry for the seeming cynical undertones in their work, as if they were both smart enough to know better, savvy enough to do it anyway, lazy enough not to care.

Like a coasting-by B-minus student, there has always been a sense Sandler has more in him if only he would apply himself, work a little harder. Beating the lowered expectations he has so carefully cultivated, with a film like "Blended" Sandler nevertheless takes on issues that speak to his audience and, for a certain sub-section, even arguably for them.

I love him and I hate him, I know him, and he is a total mystery. Adam Sandler, better than expected.

mark.olsen@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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