Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
I think it’s safe to say you either enjoy the average Adam Sandler movie or you do not – and you generally know which camp you fall in. However, the inclusion of Drew Barrymore can cloud matters.
The actress has been a font of goodwill for ages, almost always a sunny, welcome presence, no matter the quality of the film, and her two previous collaborations with Sandler – The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates – sit near the top his particular … let’s call it oeuvre. The paring is a modern rom-com spin on Katharine Hepburn’s axiom about Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” In this case it’s better tweaked to say he makes her funny, and she makes him seem like a viable mate (a feat the likes of Winona Ryder, Marisa Tomei, Jessica Biel and Jennifer Aniston failed to accomplish in his typical fare, with Punch Drunk Love being in a class all by itself).
And so it goes in Blended, directed by The Wedding Singer’s Frank Coraci , a frequently mildly charming and just as often thuddingly crass and dumb entry in familiar Sandler territory: He’s just a sometimes-hostile but overall loveable regular schmoe who enjoys sports, Hooters hot wings and especially his three daughters, plus he’s a widower this time around; she’s a successful but stressed-out single mom of two rambunctious boys trying to move on from a split from their caddish, neglectful father (Joel McHale).
After a disastrous blind date in which Sandler’s Jim and Barrymore’s Lauren demonstrate both more than a hint of self-sabotage and a considerable – and mostly reasonable – preoccupation for keeping their families functional at their own expense, the two clans find themselves, through machinations that would stretch credibility anywhere but in films like this one, taking on a shared African vacation. (Lauren’s kid-unfriendly business partner, played by Wendi McLendon-Covey, bails on a family-inclusive getaway with her paramour, who happens to be Sandler’s boss.) Circumstances then conspire to suggest that each may be the cure for the other’s offspring dysfunctions and, hey, maybe he/she’s not so bad after all.
As premises go, it’s a sound enough springboard for the clash/come together/come apart/come together dynamics of the reliable rom-com blueprint, and its appeal depends largely on personal preference/tolerance for Sandler’s comedic approach, which is in its family-friendliest mode here. Blended would probably crash and burn more often if anyone but Barrymore were his love interest, but her own inherent likability – here she’s in full on Drew Mode as the scattered, struggling but sweet-natured best friend/little sister/dream girl audiences love to root for – and she grounds the movie in what often enough feels like real emotion to excuse at least some of its dumber jokes (one of his daughters is named Espn – GET IT?) and manipulatively mawkish sentimentality.
Whenever any of its weaker elements threaten to derail the proceedings, there are gimmicks aplenty – Hey, there’s Shaquille O’Neal! Hey, wasn’t that the Boy George lookalike from their first film? – to serve as shiny objects of distraction. The better ones include the convincingly girlfriend-y rapport between Barrymore and McLendon-Covey; newcomer Jessica Lowe as Kevin Nealon’s breathy-voiced new bride, freshly spinning a familiar trope with a surprisingly touching undercurrent of desperation to be approved by Nealon’s teenage son; and Terry Crews as the oft-shirtless lead singer of the resort getaway’s African chorus, commenting on the action in locales surreal and sublime – a gag that’s predictably overplayed, yet Crews’ wild-eyed enthusiasm provokes a smile throughout.
And then there’s 16-year-old Bella Thorne, the former Disney Channel star in the first of an upcoming onslaught of film roles. Playing Jim’s daughter Hilary, a teen stuck in an ugly-duckling hell made of the unflattering sportswear her father sells and his not-so-subtle inability to see her as anything but an athlete in the making, Thorne effectively disappears into the love-challenged tomboy guise and also sells the glamorous swan that Barrymore helps unveil. The young actress doesn’t have a lot of material here, but there’s tremendous promise in every moment she’s on camera: she reads like a natural movie star in the making.
What distinguishes Blended from the average Sandler comedy of recent vintage (you may have gleaned that I’m firmly in the “I liked his first few films – y’know, the funny ones” camp) is the undeniable spark that still ignites between the comedian and his apparent muse, Barrymore – even as they age and evolve from project to project, even in weak material, they tend to bring out something a little special in each other. This film is no Wedding Singer, to be sure – I can’t endorse it, but if it seems like your kind of thing I’ll concede that there’s almost, kind of, barely enough charm to sing about.
Blended opens today nationwide.