Frank Coraci’s Blended is the best, sweetest, least offensive live-action Adam Sandler comedy in many years. It’s still not funny, but it’s a step in the right direction.
What Adam Sandler finds funny can be a little shocking. In Grown-Ups 2, he mined humor out of humiliating women (in addition to mocking a muscular female for being buff, it also contained an ugly scene wherein a group of women are sexually harassed), and seemed to celebrate the very forms of bullying it was speaking out against (the main characters victimize others just as much as they are victimized). And in the truly abrasive That’s My Boy, Sandler played an abusive, neglectful father whose victimized adult son (fathered by an illegal underage relationship) had to learn to forget the years of abuse and love his dad again. Both films mined a lot its visual gags from pop culture of the 1980s, perhaps Sandler’s formative years.
So Sandler’s humor seems to stem a lot from abuse. He takes the dark and horrifying aspects of life, and tries to put a sitcom spin on them. His extreme antisocial behavior is depicted as charming and wholesome, even as it becomes increasingly clear how awful his characters are. Sandler’s films, oddly enough though, ultimately celebrate the virtues of friendship and the traditional values of the nuclear family. We just had to pass through Sandler’s dark mirror to get there.
My experience with Blended, a straightforward romantic comedy pairing Sandler with Drew Barrymore for the third time, was far more positive than with his previous two movies. It doesn’t victimize any minority groups, and it doesn’t strike the ugly, abusive tone of most Sandler vehicles. It’s fresh, the Barrymore and Sandler have good chemistry, and the film is ultimately about being good parents. The kid characters are more grounded and less broad than they could have been, thanks to some good performances from the young child actors, and the ultimate message is about overcoming the past, rather than wallowing in it. It’s still broad, bland, and unfunny, but it’s a step in the right direction. Slight praise I know, but it’s notable.
Sandler plays a blue-collar widower named Jim, who raising three daughters on his own. Jim is such a sports fanatic that he dresses his daughters in track suits, and named one of the ESPN, yuk yuk. His eldest is a tall pretty redhead named Hilary (Bella Thorne) who is constantly mistaken for a boy, despite her girlish features, clear skin, and rather classical beauty; the is-she-a-boy jokes fall flat because Hilary does not look boyish, even with the charming Prince Valiant haircut. Barrymore plays a divorced mom named Lauren whose neglectful husband is not helping to raise their two sons. It’s constantly mentioned that one of her sons (Braxton Beckham) has just discovered masturbation, which is treated like an element of shame in his life. The kids get out of this scot-free. They are all complete, fresh-faced characters with their own dramas; only occasionally are they treated like props for the more adult comedy (one of the kids has his head repeatedly smashed against doorjambs while being carried to bed).
The story follows Jim and Lauren on an African vacation that they poached from their boss and best friend respectively. Although the film was shot in South Africa, there is no mention made of what nation the characters are in; they only ever refer to the continent in the abstract. It hardly matters; they rarely leave the ultra-tourist playland of couples massages and kid-friendly petting zoos. The entire film looks like an antiseptic studio backlot, and probably was. Just try to ignore Terry Crewes not-as-funny-as-he-could-have-been compère and his nearly-offensive chorus of African singers. Over the course of their vacation, Jim and Lauren – previously hating each other thanks to an early botched blind date – will bond over comparative parenting styles, and find that they like each others’ kids an awful lot: She finally gets to do girly things with girls, and he finally gets to teach boys how to play ball. By the end, they may end up falling in love, but I wouldn’t dare spoil that.
Did I laugh? Once or twice. I liked the gag (revealed in the film’s previews) of each character looking at a pretty girl, and each hearing a different, tonally appropriate musical cue on the film’s soundtrack. For the most part, though, the gags are bland and predictable. One can hope that Sandler, as he ages, will move further away from his need to be caustic and shocking, and embrace his romantic side. He’s capable of good work. We’ll see it some day.