That’s My Boy Exposes a Conspiracy
If you didn’t get the Memo to hate Adam Sandler, his new movie That’s My Boy would seem another likable, if minor, entry in his continuing series of unexpectedly challenging human comedies. The anti-Sandler Memo is a follow-the-leader pact–not literally a missive but an unconscious social ideology that protects Hollywood’s status quo. It perverts honest, healthy response to Sandler whose comic tendency is to affront the status quo in film after film. His spoofing of political correctness and middle-brow propriety is the real reason behind all the haterade which became ridiculous after last year‘s ingenious, heartfelt Jack and Jill provoked an endless backlash of unprecedented lunacy and vitriol.
It’s payback because Sandler isn’t a bullyboy comic like Sasha Baron Cohen. Sandler looks at class embarrassment, a concept our cultural elite disdains but that his films trace to social and family relations (i.e.. personal responsibility). In That’s My Boy Sandler portrays blue collar slob Donny estranged from his yuppie son Todd (Andy Samberg). This looks like a Jerry Lewis stunt although the situation mostly recalls an ’80s father-son class comedy like the Tom Hanks-Jackie Gleason Nothing in Common. But screenwriter David Caspe’s burlesque approach throws it off kilter with a prologue that sets the story‘s crazy-comedy tone: Teenage Donny became a legend when he had sex with his high school math teacher (Eva Amurri) who was convicted for statutory rape and gave birth to Donny’s son in prison.
More than just one of Sandler’s 80s pop fetishes (referencing Van Halen’s wonderfully audacious Hot for Teacher music video as every horny teen‘s fantasy), this introduces a taboo-busting fearlessness that recurs in the film’s seemingly improvised range of satirical targets: adult Donny’s strip club friends plus Todd’s snooty fiancee (Leighton Meester) and her moneyed family are all outrageous yet appealing.
The ambivalence proves Sandler’s balanced comic judgment as much as the film’s sloppiness, but Memo’d critics have ignored this complication. They resist experiencing their own ambivalence. It’s easier to stress the film’s flaws rather than deal with the implications of its humor.
That’s My Boy doesn’t offer complacent mockery of blue collar/white collar class differences. Sandler’s key challenge notes the derangement of social values, beginning with the celebrity young Donny endured (media fame that brought out his worst personal habits, lassitude, slovenliness, crudeness) and the repressed honesty that shames his now grown, embarrassed son. Todd was christened Han Solo by infantile Donny (who treated fatherhood like a kid owning an action figure). It’s silly but silliness doesn’t prevent Sandler from accurately pinpointing our social hypocrisy. That’s what W.C. Fields used to do. Like Fields, the humor suggests political conservatism rather than the liberal hypocrisy praised in comedies that take class privilege for granted. Ironically in the Obama age of elite sophistication, the most esteemed film comedies are the crudely obnoxious The Hangover and Bridesmaids.
Hating Sandler gives people the delusion of sophistication; thinking they actually have standards, they pretend to disdain vulgarity. This pretense hides from cultural truths like teacher-student impropriety, fan boy mania and wilder incongruities. Donny and Todd’s estrangement gets to the deeper issue of self esteem. (How it might be conveyed through parenting as much as heritage–also the theme of the Wayans Brothers’ underappreciated Little Man.) That Donny teaches Todd to accept his parentage and be himself (minus the meds and social pretenses) explores the modern self-denial that has become a sub theme in Sandler’s films since the superb Spanglish. If That’s My Boy fulfilled its potential it would resemble a vintage class-based melodrama like Stella Dallas.
Except for the bodacious sex sketches (Champale, the middle-aged black pole-dancer with the XL pasties played by Luenell Campell contrasts the naughty Waspy grandmother played by Peggy Stewart), the best scenes in That’s My Boy show Donny and Todd’s growing warmth. Their outward contrast hides an inner kinship. Caspe and director Sean Anders don’t build on this; they throw in tangential heart tugging belly laughs such as an overweight marathon runner, an unresolved Hot for Teacher reunion and an ultimate broken taboo involving the fiancee and her brother (Milo Ventimiglia) that seems designed to especially taunt the haters. Only in this last instance does Sandler’s conservatism fail him. The Wasp-bashing defends the violation of family virtues but it is out of step with Sandler’s usually open-hearted view of rascals, misfits and reprobates. (This segment’s confused politics need a impudent rewrite by Robert Smigel).
Critic Dennis Delrogh astutely suggests that Sandler work with the Farrelly brothers who practice a rich, non -judgmental view of humanity. But the Farrellys are also in critical disrepute–they’re unhip pariahs like Sandler’s inspiration Eddie Murphy. All are victims of the Memo, the critical pile-on. It’s not just childish critics and mindless bloggers who deal dirt to Sandler and Murphy; the worst offenders are precisely those who fall for any blockbuster. Undiscriminating, they chant the blue-hair old ladies’ excuses: “tasteless,“ “vulgar, “sexist,“ “misogynist,“ “mean-spirited.” A booby prize should be given to the morons who work all those snippy attitudes into a single dismissive review. They‘re really just art-bullies. Joining the mob allows them to guiltlessly avoid examining Sandler’s layered, thoughtful and moral comedies.
Despite its deliberate ribaldry and outrage, That’s My Boy poignantly reminds the elite class of its forgotten virtues: Donny doesn’t want to be a sell-out, self-denying hypocrite like Todd. Sandler deals with Jewishness and humanness that enrages the media elite. Everywhere from The New York Times to Entertainment Wackly, the same reviewers praise raunch-fests like The Hangover and Bridesmaids while celebrating Todd Phillips, Larry Charles, Kristin Wiig and Judd Apatow as cultural heroes only because Sandler dares to express feelings about family, ethnicity, friendship–the realpolitik of genuine social interaction.
It’s scary how the Memo makes Sandler and Murphy whipping boys, simply to sustain true Hollywood vulgarity. It perpetuates the collapse of critical thinking. When Sandler-bashing (and I don’t just mean the ludicrous Razzies, ratified only by tabloid media) turns into excoriation, it is necessary to examine the media’s cowardice and prejudices. The Sandler Memo has reduced criticism to a profession of chain letters.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair