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It’s easy to understand if some cinemagoers have given up on Adam Sandler. Despite some solid performances in movies like “Reign Over Me” and “Punch-Drunk Love” and a few (arguably) funny early films, he has, at this point, fallen off the wagon. With a five film run (excluding animated voice work) of “Grown Ups,” “Just Go With It,” “Jack and Jill,” “That’s My Boy” and “Grown Ups 2,” only “Just Go With It” managed to be even remotely watchable, while “Grown Ups 2” can easily be labeled with no hyperbole as one of the absolute worst comedies ever made. However, it doesn’t appear he’s totally lost, as evidenced by his latest, “Blended.” While a positive reception to it could very well be due to the disastrously low expectations Sandler has set for his movies over the last few years, there’s a certain warmth to it that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

In his third outing with Drew Barrymore, Sandler plays Jim, a manager at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods store who has a terrible first date with Lauren, played by Barrymore. Neither are interested in the other, so they part ways expecting to never see each other again. However, a chance circumstance lands them both at an African resort where they are booked to participate in a number of couples events. Along with them are Lauren’s two boys, one a reckless danger to himself and the other just discovering his sexuality, and Jim’s three girls, the oldest of which is developing a crush for the first time, terrifying Jim. However, their attraction grows while on the vacation and they each develop bonds with the other’s kids, which leads them somewhere unexpected.

“Blended” has a leg up when compared to Sandler’s recent filmography. Whereas films like “Grown Ups” and its sequel didn’t even bother with a story, this film’s ideas and themes center around its story. Sure, it’s predictable, but there’s heart to it and its family value themes come naturally rather than forced like in “Jack and Jill.” Similarly, the kids aren’t just throwaway figures like they have been in previous movies. They’re integral to the film’s meaning. Each of Jim’s children misses their mother, who died of cancer, and they each have their own ways of coping. The middle child, for instance, likes to pretend that her mom is still there, an invisible force that she speaks to and saves a spot at the dinner table for. Jim, who also misses their mother more than anything in the world, goes along with it, understanding the pain his daughter feels.

Both Jim and Lauren, the latter of whom is dealing with the resentment from her children for leaving their deadbeat father, have the best intentions and are trying to make the most out of a life that hasn’t quite gone as they planned. They’re both flawed, particularly Jim, who dresses his girls up in boyish clothes and styles their hair in the female equivalent of a bowl cut, but they’re doing their best, both clearly out of their comfort zones when they have to deal with issues that their spouses would have traditionally handled, like when Lauren finds a hidden centerfold under her son’s bed or when Jim’s oldest daughter hits that time of the month.

They say the quickest way to someone’s heart is through their kids, so it comes as no surprise that it’s they who end up sparking the attraction between Jim and Lauren while in Africa. Each help the other in various ways and as more layers of Jim and Lauren are revealed, their desire to spend more time with each other grows. These moments are genuine too. At first, some of the jabs they take at each other are a little mean spirited, but more often than not, they’re nothing more than playful pokes, the type of innocent jokes any loving couple shares with each other.

On top of all that, “Blended” is actually pretty funny, surprisingly so after Sandler’s last few abominations. Granted, likable characters make for a more pleasant and humorous experience, but some of the jokes are genuinely clever, like when it upends the post-makeover slow-mo entrance scene made popular by romantic comedies in the 80s and 90s with transitioning music based on the reactions of those looking on, including Jim’s horrified expression as he realizes his little girl will now be an object of desire for the boys around her. It even nails the awkwardness of first dates; those who have ever been on a bad one will get to see the old “planned emergency phone call” escape we’ve all wanted to try, but never had the guts to.

With all that said, “Blended” is still not a great movie. It has just as many jokes that land with a thud as it does that actually work and some late movie dramatics pile on the cheese, despite previous false set-ups that could have circumvented it. “Blended” stumbles a ton, that’s for sure, but when it’s at its best, it finds real meaning. It’s touching and doesn’t feel exhausting despite its nearly two hour runtime, which includes a recurring bit from Terry Crews where he shows up in the most random places to sing, a bit that should get old, but, oddly, never does. This is a major step up for Sandler after his previous debacles. Let’s hope he continues this upward swing and realizes his potential because I’m not sure I could suffer through a “Grown Ups 3.”

Blended receives 3.5/5


Grown Ups

I like Adam Sandler. I really do. But I like him in a way that differs from most. I like him as an actor, a person who can embody a character and draw out emotion with ease. I don’t like him as the lowbrow funnyman the world has come to love. Despite solid performances in films like Spanglish, Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, he seems content to revert back to his old ways every so often. His latest, facetiously titled Grown Ups, features an ensemble cast isolated together in a cabin away from civilization where they will, predictably, grow as families and learn valuable life lessons.

The men in the families are longtime friends who grew up playing basketball together on Bobby “Buzzer” Ferdinando’s (Blake Clark) team. That team is the only one Buzzer has ever won a championship with so the kids all hold a special place in his heart. After his unfortunate death years later, the guys are reunited. There’s Lenny (Adam Sandler), a Hollywood agent in Los Angeles, Eric (Kevin James), the designated fat friend, Kurt (Chris Rock), the token black guy, Marcus (David Spade), the womanizing, alcohol abusing partier, and Rob (Rob Schneider), the wacky, “mystical” hippy friend who has a fetish for older women.

Those character descriptions, as simple as they are, also sum up the types of jokes in the movie. Eric is overweight, so most quips thrown his way are of the fat variety. The wisecracks directed at Rob have to do with his much too old wife. Pranks are pulled on Marcus when he passes out drunk and he wakes up in strange places. So on and so forth. Each character inhibits one personality trait and then takes a lashing from his friends about it.

If a character is too minor to have a personality, the filmmakers simply give that person a physical abnormality to joke on. For instance, Kurt’s mother-in-law is, inexplicably, with them at the cabin and she has something wrong with her toe, which is swelled up to the size of a golf ball. She is bombarded with harsh names like “Toe-J Simpson” and the like, but none are ever funny.

It’s a shame because Grown Ups tries so hard. The joke per second ratio is through the roof. When one character makes a crack at another, the rest of the friends join in on the verbal beatings. There are puns flying left and right from a mostly talented cast, yet so many go in one ear and out the other, if you’re lucky. Having one of those inane jokes stuck in your head could cause brain damage.

One important goal of comedies is to be fun. If the actors can show us how much they had on set, it might bleed through the screen to the audience. Grown Ups does this well. The five guys are clearly friends in real life and when they laugh onscreen, it feels genuine. They aren’t laughing because the script calls for them to, but rather because they simply can’t hold it in.

The problem is that while they’re clearly having a blast, the audience is not. None of the fun seeps through because the script isn’t there. This is one of those cases where I’d rather see a documentary about the making of the film because the behind-the-camera antics would surely be more rewarding.

Grown Ups receives 1/5