Wednesday, June 20, 2012

That's My Boy

THAT’S MY BOY (Sean Anders, 2012)

At this point it’s tempting to wonder if Adam Sandler is screwing with us.  He’s made plenty of unfunny, mean-spirited, juvenile films that the majority of critics have thrashed. In a filmography overflowing with bad reviews, his last effort, JACK AND JILL, could be his most panned.  (Although I am a consistent detractor, I actually thought it was halfway decent by his low standards.) With THAT’S MY BOY it’s as though he’s taken up the gauntlet to be as terrible as many think he is.

Like many boys on the cusp of adolescence, seventh grader Donny Berger (Justin Weaver) has a crush on one of his instructors.  He lusts for his young, pretty math teacher Mary McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino) and goes out of his way to flirt with her. The difference in Donny’s situation is that the educator of his affection is similarly smitten.  Donny and Mary have sex at various spots around the school until they’re discovered in flagrante delicto at a building-wide assembly.

Scoring with the teacher earns the hearty respect and approval of male classmates and faculty members.  It even makes him a national celebrity.  The law, however, takes a different view of the matter.  Mary, who is pregnant with Donny’s son, receives a lengthy prison sentence for the underage affair.  Donny is given full custody and cashes in on his fame by publishing a book and selling the TV movie rights to his story.

The adult Donny (Sandler) is adrift trying to relive his glory years.  He tools around town in a rusty old Fiero with Rush’s starman logo on the hood and wiles away his days drinking, gambling, and hanging out at a strip club.  His son, who he named Han Solo, left home upon turning eighteen and has avoided staying in contact.  

Donny is desperate to end their estrangement when he is informed he owes the IRS $43,000.  The only way he can raise the money quickly enough and avoid jail himself is to arrange a prison reunion with his boy and Mary (Susan Sarandon) for a television talk show.  With a bit of luck he learns that Han Solo is now a hedge fund manager named Todd (Andy Samberg).  He’s at his boss’s oceanfront home on Cape Cod preparing for his wedding to Jamie (Leighton Meester) when Donny crashes the festivities posing as Todd’s best friend.  Rather than being upfront with Todd about his dilemma, a tactic likely doomed to failure, Donny tries to persuade him to visit his mother with a story of her being deathly ill.
There’s no getting around the fact that THAT’S MY BOY is a comedy hinging on how cool and hilarious statutory rape is.  Young Donny is to be admired for fulfilling the schoolboy fantasy that’s the stuff of a Van Halen video.  High five, bro!  The film takes every opportunity to dismiss objections because Donny doesn’t feel he was abused and professes his love for her from 1984 through the present day.  The easy out would have been to make Donny a high school senior and thus minimize the skeeviness of this whole ordeal.  That it didn’t is kind of stunning.  

Obviously there’s a cultural double standard at work here.  If the genders were reversed, the likelihood is virtually nil that this scenario would be played for laughs and winking endorsements. That’s not to suggest the topic is off-limits in comedy but that it would take someone exercising more than locker room outrageousness.  The Farrelly brothers are better attuned to breaking taboos while retaining humanity, and I could envision Lars von Trier trying to pull off something like this with pitch-black humor.

Or maybe John Waters should have been given a swing at THAT’S MY BOY.  The film toys with transgressive humor and celebrating sketchy people on the margins.  It positions Donny as the coolest guy around.  Everyone but super-lame Todd loves his Masshole-accented, raging alcoholic dad.  Good grief, THAT’S MY BOY is somewhat of a comedic redemption for entertainment industry has-beens Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges, who turn in surprisingly funny supporting performances.  

Of course, Sandler isn’t bold enough to let his character and the film be as unrepentantly nasty as they want to be.  How could he allow it when THAT’S MY BOY gives in to his sickly sweet sentimental streak and testifies to how awesome he is?  THAT’S MY BOY amplifies the raunch in Sandler’s usual routine, and the misogyny is as pronounced as ever in his films.  (Give credit to Meester for going above and beyond the call of duty in a monstrously written role.)  It just doesn’t have the conviction to own up to its ugliness without ample reminders that its star is a misunderstood sweetheart.

Director Sean Anders brings a level of formal competence that Sandler’s Happy Madison productions often lack.  The comedian seems more energized on screen this time around.  Chances are THAT’S MY BOY isn’t a contemptuous stunt to see what Sandler can get away with and what audiences will accept; it just seems like one.

Grade: D-  

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