Friday, May 23, 2014

Blended: Pulverized

Blended (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for crude content, sexual candor and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

A modest but fairly decent romantic comedy lurks somewhere within the clumsy, bloated mess of this movie, but it’s damn hard to find.

Years removed from the dating scene, Jim (Adam Sandler) sets up a blind date with
Lauren (Drew Barrymore) at the local Hooters. First impressions aren't so hot; second
impressions are even worse. So, naturally, these two will be seeing a lot more of each
other. Because, otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie (not necessarily a bad thing).
As often has been the case with Adam Sandler’s recent films, the actor seems at war with his own conflicting sensibilities: a perceived need to reward fans who expect the vulgar, gross-out slapstick of his early career; and an honest desire to veer toward gentler, family-friendly material.

The results can be awkward, to say the least, as we’ve already seen in his two Grown Ups entries, each of which tried for aw-shucks, feel-good moments that simply didn’t gel with the sexist, moronic “humor” targeted more specifically at arrested adolescent males.

You’ll find the same unwieldy mix in Blended, Sandler’s third — and least satisfying — pairing with co-star Drew Barrymore. I can’t help wondering if Sandler views Barrymore as his lucky token, given that their first collaboration, 1998’s The Wedding Singer, remains one of his most satisfying films. (Mind you, we’re still not talking Shakespeare; a “superior” Sandler comedy doesn’t raise the bar very high.)

Their sophomore team-up — 2004’s 50 First Dates — wasn’t quite as successful, but its virtues still overshadowed the coarse and tasteless elements that by then had become a stronger part of Sandler’s oeuvre.

All of which brings us to Blended, which can be viewed as something of a cinematic Hail Mary play, coming in the wake of gawdawful bombs such as Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy. (Frankly, Sandler’s only truly entertaining movie of late was HotelTransylvania, and it starred only his voice.) Unfortunately, Blended is yet another flick that doesn’t know what it wants to be, when it grows up: a flaw directly attributed to the haphazard script from Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera, making inept big-screen writing debuts.

The results are all over the map, and director Frank Coraci doesn’t help much. Although he helmed the aforementioned Wedding Singer, more recently he has been responsible for the numb-nuts Kevin James comedies Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom. So let’s just say that Coraci’s tendencies aren’t likely to support any of Sandler’s efforts to channel his kinder, gentler self.

Single parents Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore) meet during a disastrous blind date. She’s divorced and well rid of her useless ex; he’s widowed and still mourning his late wife. Jim arranges the date at Hooters, where all the well-endowed cuties know his name. (There’s a reason, of sorts, for this venue choice, but we don’t learn it for awhile. And it’s not much of a reason, when we do learn it.) This scene involves a particularly disgusting close encounter between Barrymore, some buffalo wings and a chaser of French onion soup: a very bad sign of things to come.

(As a quick sidebar, it seemed de rigueur, in the very recent past, for vulgar comedies to include a scene featuring the perceived height of humor: projectile defecation, usually with a diarrheic twist. More recently, we’ve moved on to projectile vomiting or the generic spitting out of partially chewed food. I’m not sure this is an improvement.

(But I digress...)

Despite an avowed desire never to see each other again, Jim and Lauren somehow keep crossing paths. Then, under circumstances so contrived as to defy description, they wind up “sharing” a family-themed African safari vacation: Jim and his three daughters, Hilary (Bella Thorne), Espn (Emma Fuhrmann) and Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind); and Lauren and her two sons, Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein).

An interesting observation, at this juncture: Lauren’s sons are uncontrolled monsters, both young actors encouraged to overact shamelessly by Coraci. Neither Brendan nor Tyler feels the slightest bit real; they’re exaggerated, detestable, ADHD brats along the lines of those found in the horrid “family comedies” unleashed by Disney in the 1970s.

Jim’s daughters, on the extreme other hand, are compassionate girls with reasonable issues and credible behavior. The jock-ish Hilary, raised for too long by only her father, chafes under unflattering track suits and a Prince Valiant haircut, often mistaken for a boy by boys she wishes would appraise her as a girl. Espn, unwilling to abandon the memory of her mother, “talks” to her constantly and insists on setting a place for her at the table.

Lou’s sole job is to be cute as a bug, while serving as the bridge that eventually unites Jim and Lauren: a task that the irrepressible Lind handles with aplomb.

So ... we like, adore and sympathize with Jim’s daughters, while thoroughly detesting Lauren’s sons, and wishing they’d both get lost — permanently — in the nearby veldt. This seems ... quite weird. What, did Barrymore draw the short straw?

Jim, Lauren and the kids share their African resort escapades with newlyweds Eddy and Ginger (Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe), this story’s token oversexed couple. Their dinner-table mating rituals quickly grow tiresome, particularly to Eddy’s teenage son, Jake (Zak Henri), who naturally is disgusted — as are we — by the way his father carries on with a cleavage-enhanced cutie half his age.

Jake, obviously, has been inserted to catch the insecure Hilary’s eye; she swoons immediately.

The subsequent story arcs are as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise, but that’s okay; the gradual thawing of relations is far preferable to the stray bits of stupid slapstick that keep getting in the way.

A few supporting characters are a hoot, particularly the imposing Terry Crews, playing wildly against type as the resort’s resident musical star: a sultry, crooning, hip-swaying lead singer dubbed Nickens, who fronts a harmony group called Thathoo. Nickens and his ensemble have a habit of popping up at the most unexpected moments, augmenting a given scene with a hilarious a cappella twist. Crews is genuinely funny, and his flamboyant character is one of this film’s great strengths.

Abdoulaye N’gom is another standout, as the genial resort host. N’gom’s delivery is understated, his features defiantly cheerful even when his daily agendas erupt into chaos.

Thorne also brings her A-game to this third-string material, deftly conveying the anxieties of a young woman who has begun to wonder if she even is a woman. Hilary’s eventual ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation is a revelation: a marvelous scene that this veteran young actress — working since she was 9 years old — handles with delightful assurance.

Sadly, Barrymore doesn’t deliver near the same impact, when Lauren sheds her uptight tendencies and goes for her own fashion makeover. Film students couldn’t ask for better contrast within the same movie; Thorne’s easy grace simply magnifies Barrymore’s stiffness, in near-identical scenes that hope to deliver the same va-va-voom.

Which is odd, because Barrymore certainly is capable of selling such a moment. Ergo, we should blame Coraci.

This makes sense, because he’s an impressively unskilled director, and not merely because of this film’s uneven tone. At a butt-numbing 117 minutes, this flick is far too long and self-indulgent. In part, this is because Menchell and Sera don’t know how to conclude their story; a protracted and pointless fourth act staggers way beyond the point the narrative should have concluded.

But Coraci also contributes to this problem, apparently having studied at the Monty Python School of Beating A Joke To Death. If it’s funny once — as when Lauren, staggering under the weight of a sleeping Tyler, keeps whacking the kid’s head against nearby walls and doorjambs — then it’ll be funny two, three and four times. (Not.)

Then, too, Coraci too frequently encourages his performers to shout and scream, even when inappropriate. This smacks of insecurity; if the dialogue is genuinely funny, it’ll be funny at normal volume ... and if it isn’t funny, shrieking ain’t gonna make it funny.

The biggest problem, though, is that Sandler himself doesn’t seem sure, from one scene to the next, how to behave in his own film. He too frequently wears the puzzled expression that Jim displays during an unexpected meeting with Lauren’s ex (Joel McHale). So if Sandler can’t be bothered to try harder, and Coraci can’t decide how to shade his film, what are we to make of the results?

Not much, as it turns out. The occasional charms notwithstanding, Blended is a graceless mess that’ll disappear very quickly, once the summer onslaught begins in a few weeks.

And it won’t be missed.

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