Mother's milk: Grown Ups and Adam Sandler's comedy of regression
Why? Why does Adam Sandler exist? What explains his success? Is it just because he appeals to his audience's leftover male infantile aggression? Has his monetary success become a fait accompli, a given, so that when Sandler calls Drew Barrymore or Christopher Walken or Chris Rock or Salma Hayek or Steve Buscemi, they always inexplicably agree to appear in his movies? When I first saw Mr. Deeds (with Winona Ryder!) on a scratchy VHS video back in the early 2000s, I was dumbfounded, appalled, astonished. I have since seen and reviewed many of his movies, but that sense of wonder at the popularity of his brand of smirking stupidity has never gone away. It has instead deepened over time, especially now that Sandler's schtick has managed to gain the patina of critical respectability in films like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People.
What is his secret? Perhaps it's because his movies create a space in which the viewer can feel good about regressing into some useless youthful zone. If the viewer's feeling juvenile, this space allows his infantile interest in poop and bodily functions to be endlessly and unrealistically rewarded. For that reason, Sandler's jokes need not be all that funny, nor his movies all that good. It's all part of the permissive slacker atmosphere that he allows the audience to revel in like overgrown children returning to Romper Room. In Grown Ups, a 4 year old child still drinks from his mommy's breast in front of mildly scandalized guests. That's Sandler's aesthetic in a nutshell.
Returning to his comedic base with Grown Ups, Sandler scarcely seems to have to try at all, so he throws together a gang of his comic pals (Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, and Rob Schneider) to form The Big Chill of poot humor. In its assurance of success, Grown Ups is so incredibly lazily made I wouldn't be surprised if the camera man had trouble keeping awake during the shoot. There is not a plot so much as a gang (a bunch of guys who used to play in a kids' basketball team) assembled in a cottage on the side of a lake for the weekend (to make sense of their lives after their coach's death) in the vague hope of something funny arising out of the air. Sandler now lives in such a stultifying airless vacuum of the super rich, he casts around for some sort of friction somewhere. The film contains stabs at humor, but mainly he wants the viewer to feel like he belongs, and can partake in Sandler's drawling ambience of smug inconsequence.
Grown Ups is also strikingly full of sentimental gestures. Kevin James falls on a bird, so a child places it in a shoebox and helps it to recover. Salma Hayek's character torments herself for accidentally giving away who the real tooth fairy is to her daughter. Leney Feder worries over his spoiled son's initial lack of desire to throw a rock. All of the guys and their wives dance to late 70s power ballads. They scatter the coach's ashes ceremonially (a scene that directly steals from The Big Lebowski). Leney (spoiler alert) loses the basketball game on purpose so that his working class opponents can feel good about themselves, and of course, the film ends with a mass group hug. Somewhere in the midst of growing up, Sandler has become a purveyor of Cracker Barrel schmaltz for the Kiwanis Club crowd. His sense of domesticated constraint, like the canned pleasure of the amusement park, settles over his film like fallout.