Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grown-Ups: It grows on us

Grown Ups (2010) • View trailer for Grown Ups
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for vulgar humor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.1.10
Buy DVD: Grown Ups • Buy Blue-Ray: Grown Ups (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Imagine my surprise: Despite occasional dollops of bad taste, this film actually has a sweet and warm-hearted center. 

Indeed, the good-natured character bonding is so at odds with the flashes of vulgarity, that the latter moments seem inserted as an afterthought, solely to appease the potty-minded members of Adam Sandler's fan base.
If only things could be as simple as they were, back when everybody
was 12 years old: Five best friends -- from left, Kurt (Chris Rock),
Marcus (David Spade), Eric (Kevin James), Rob (Rob Schneider) and
Lenny (Adam Sandler) -- find just enough of their youthful selves to
make their reunion worth the various tensions with respective family
members, in Grown Ups.

Mind you, a few of these "gags" are stop-the-film dreadful, most particularly a running bit involving a 4-year-old boy  who can't act a lick  who still uses his mother as a wet-nurse. That joke is wincingly awful the first time, and it doesn't get any better with repetition. Far too much repetition. 

Fortunately, the core storyline in Grown Ups generally rises above such crudeness. Indeed, this script  from Sandler and Fred Wolf  is the gentlest comedy Sandler has done since The Wedding Singer, and that's a good thing. Sandler's at his best when held back and allowed to resemble a genuine human being. 

And that's the film's other miracle: Everybody is held back, even the almost always unpalatable Rob Schneider. 

(I could argue, just in passing, that the worst thing Sandler ever did was give his good  but wholly untalented  buddy Schneider a career. I've always respected folks who stand by their friends, but must this be done at the expense of our suffering?) 

This film's previews certainly suggested that Sandler, Schneider, Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James would simply run amok for roughly two hours, which is all Dennis Dugan generally does with a cast, when he directs. (Anybody out there remember the ghastly travesty of You Don't Mess with the Zohan?) Somehow, though, this story inspired even Dugan to be a better version of himself. 

Wonder of wonders, the result is a better film ... even if the characters rarely rise above two-dimensional cliches. 

Lenny (Sandler), Eric (James), Kurt (Rock), Marcus (Spade) and Rob (Schneider), childhood best buds who've allowed entropy to expand the months between get-togethers, assemble anew after their beloved grade-school basketball coach dies. 

Their arrival at the funeral service, in their old home town, is cause for mutual assessment and genial joshing, although the ribbing has a bit of an edge. But that's OK; these guys still know each other, and they all seem able to handle the verbal jabs. 

Kurt has become a whiny house-husband whose corporate-minded wife, Deanne (Maya Rudolph), never has time for him. She too frequently sides with her tart-tongued mother (Ebony Jo-Ann), who of course lives with them. 

The overweight Eric  a bit sensitive about the poundage  is the hapless father of the aforementioned suckling child, who constantly demands 'mama's milk' from the cheerfully compliant Sally (Maria Bello). Oh, and their other child, a slightly older daughter, is a shrieking brat. 

Rob, still indulging his childhood obsession with much older women, is happily ensconced in a May/December relationship and has become a condescending vegan and all-around holistic sage. Marcus, still single and proud of it, mostly reminds his friends of the carefree bachelor life they're missing, thanks to their respective mates. 

That leaves Lenny, by far the most successful of the group, who has become an ultra-rich Hollywood agent; he has married equally well, to glamorous fashion designer Roxanne (Salma Hayek). 

It's Sandler's script, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that he gave himself the choicest part and the hottest wife. 

But Lenny's success has come at a price that he's only just beginning to perceive: Their two sons are gadget-laden, spoiled-rotten little snots who don't think twice about running their nanny (Di Quon) ragged with trivial demands. Happily, the boys' younger sister is a little charmer, although her devotion toward injured animals creates some of its own problems. 

Both as a magnanimous gesture and a means to tear his kids away from their widescreen TV video games, Lenny rents a lake house in the ol' home town, and  following the funeral service  encourages his friends and their families to bond anew in these rustic surroundings. The guys are all for re-visiting their happy childhood haunts, the wives and kids ... not so much. 

And so the story sets its course, as our heroes make occasional fools of themselves while pretending they're still 12. Lenny and Roxanne's two sons can't believe they're stuck in this wilderness of TV sets with bulky picture tubes, but gosh, you just know they'll eventually be won over the by the uncomplicated joys of skipping stones and taking nature hikes. 

We're won over, as well. Sandler and Wolf don't force the issue in their script; it evolves reasonably enough amid the sort of banter we'd naturally expect from guys who've known each other for a long time. Indeed, these actors have known each other for a long time, and they bring that camaraderie to the party. The film is better for the authenticity of their mutual off-camera friendship. 

Additional plot contrivances surface: some for humor, one for mild tension. Turns out that the hilariously unattractive Rob has sired  with earlier wives  two drop-dead-gorgeous supermodel-type daughters, who show up for this family gathering and spend the weekend wearing as little as possible. Watching the guys trying not to watch one of these gals, as she bends over her uncooperative car's engine, is a hoot. 

One could wonder why Rob has young twentysomething daughters, while his friends' kids are all in the 4- to 13-year-old zone, but I guess it's not worth worrying about. 

As for the dramatic tension, some of the hometown boys, led by Dick Bailey (Colin Quinn), have seethed ever since that championship basketball game back in the day. Dick insists  and rightly so, as we see during the prologue  that Lenny's foot was over the line when he made the game-winning shot.

We therefore know, before this film's over, that Lenny and his friends will wind up in a rematch with Dick and his buddies. But here, too, things don't turn out quite as expected, and I was pleased by the way Sandler and Wolf resolved this situation. 

Corny? You bet. And if that's a problem, go watch some other movie. 

The always reliable Steve Buscemi turns up in the third act, as one of the hometown boys; he's used just enough to be hilarious every time he appears. A bit involving Eric and Sally's dog is pretty funny, as are the unintended consequences of a dangerous double-dog-dare game dubbed "arrow roulette" ... and I sure as hell hope this film doesn't need a warning that kids shouldn't try this at home. 

Sometimes diminished expectations work in a film's favor. After the train wrecks of Zohan and last year's Funny People -— and mindful of Dugan's pedigree  my hopes for Grown Ups were pretty modest. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised. Some parents probably won't appreciate the occasional hiccups of adult-oriented vulgarity, but in all other respects Grown Ups is a warm and just-funny-enough ode to friendship.

And that's something viewers of all ages should experience more often. 

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