There are few things in modern cinema as reliable as an Adam Sandler movie. Since 1992, he's appeared in at least one film every year except for 1997, and just about all of them have been terrible. And yet there's something oddly comforting and exciting about the arrival of a new Sandler offering. It probably won't be good, but at least it'll be bad in a way that's really different from other bad mainstream comedies. Sandler's movies possess a level of randomness and crass stupidity that's almost brilliant. Who else could coax Dave Matthews into doing not one but two cameos as a gay man? Who else would dare make a summer comedy about an Israeli commando fighting terrorists (well, besides Sacha Baron Cohen)? It's not that Sandler has run out of ideas—it's that you know he's going to execute them in the weirdest, lamest ways possible. The only recent Sandler movies I've liked were Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People—you know, the movies people don't think of as "Adam Sandler movies"—and yet I have to admit I have a hard time forgetting any of them. There's nothing out there like a Sandler movie, which is probably just as well.
His latest is That's My Boy, and yet again he's taken a fairly clever concept for a broad comedy and just detonated it with some of the stupidest, most repetitive gags imaginable. Some of them are so stupid and repetitive they finally won me over. (Like all the characters in the movie, I really do want the catchphrase "Whassup?!?" to come back into the culture.) But most of them just stay stupid.
The film tells the story of Donny (Sandler), a 40-something burnout who as a teenager was a tabloid sensation because he had an affair with one of his teachers and got her pregnant. The teacher went to prison, and Donny raised the kid, terribly. Born Han Solo but renaming himself Todd as an adult, the kid has grown up to become a skittish executive (played by Andy Samberg) who desperately wants to bury his past, telling everyone that his parents died long ago. But just days from Todd's wedding to Jamie (Leighton Meester), Donny shows up in his life, playing along with Todd's lies and claiming to be the kid's best friend. Donny is pretending to mend fences with his son, but really he needs to trick him into appearing on a reality show so that Donny can make enough money to avoid prison for tax evasion.
That's My Boy is a rare R-rated comedy from Sandler, and this mostly translates into endless swearing that's rarely actually funny. In truth, it's more like anti-comedy. For as commercially successful as he's been, Sandler weirdly lacks the common touch, and his movies never seem to resemble anything from real life. (The characters are almost always really well-off, and the movies' rampant product placement turns them into glowing billboards for stuff you don't want to buy.) The result is that watching Sandler suddenly try to be "edgy" is like watching Mitt Romney try to breakdance. What's Sandler got to rebel against, anyway? There's such calculation in That's My Boy's tepid outrageousness that it never shocks you. This might be the tamest comedy ever built around statutory rape.
Despite the awfulness of That's My Boy, there exists as always that genuine Sandler weirdness. It certainly doesn't justify seeing the movie, but it does offer sights you won't see anywhere else. There's nothing in this film as bizarre as Jack and Jill's Al Pacino playing a (more) exaggerated version of himself falling in love with Sandler in drag, but Sandler's insistence that we'll want an extended appearance from Vanilla Ice as Donny's estranged friend is the sort of demented genius that would be a lot more effective if the guy could act at all. But this is par for the course with Sandler: He'll let sportscaster Dan Patrick act in his movies, a curious black hole of thespian ineptitude who still manages to be more compelling than Nick Swardson. (In a sign of how removed Sandler's core audience is from the world of film critics, I think I was the only person in my press screening who understood why he thought it would be funny to have Rex Ryan play Donny's Patriots-loving lawyer.)
But for all the complaints you can hurl at Sandler's crude comedies, you can never call them predictable. Sure, they usually resolve themselves with a mushy third act—and yet again he's embedded one high-profile star cameo late in the film—but beforehand they venture into these bizarre tangents that so defy logic that you're never quite sure where they're going. In That's My Boy, a throwaway joke very early on ends up becoming vitally important to the film's finale. Characters want to have sex with other characters for the most random of reasons. Tony Orlando plays Donny's boss because, well, maybe somebody in the audience is old enough to remember that Tony Orlando is a cultural joke. You couldn't call any of this formulaic because there doesn't seem to be any formula being followed. It's all madness—stupid, stupid madness.
And now he has Andy Samberg in his orbit, too. That's My Boy is Samberg's first big film since he announced he's leaving Saturday Night Live. How is he in it? Well, he mostly just plays the uptight, ineffectual dweeb who learns to stand up for himself, and he's not that much funnier than Sandler is at swearing. But Samberg is just one of several SNL alums who show up to salaam at the feet of Sandler: Will Forte, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, and Colin Quinn are all on board as well. Outside of Eddie Murphy, no SNL star has had a bigger film career than Sandler. You have to hand it to the guy: Back when he was doing Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, that hardly seemed like a sure thing. But through hard work, a little luck, and an ability to cater to an audience that's willing to accept him in just about anything he does, he's turned himself into a comedic thoroughbred. Just think what he could accomplish if any of these movies were actually good.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.