Written by Matt Haviland
Plot: A widower and a divorcee get stuck together on a fabulous African vacation.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
Up until now, Adam Sandler has made two kinds of movies. The rough-humor gimmick festivals that account for his most well-known and widely forgotten work (Billy Madison, Just Go With It), and the surprisingly dark dramas that lead viewers behind the joke shop to put them out of their misery (Click, Funny People). Fortunately, Blended exists in the a rarely seen third Sandler category (like Spanglish). When Adam Sandler isn’t bellowing or bereaved, he’s kissing grandmothers and comforting social outcasts. This sweetness often comes off as artificial when his characters are mean-spirited, but somehow, Blended makes Sandler’s classic negativity seem like the fake part.
Grieving widower Jim (Adam Sandler) and his kids and divorcee Lauren (Drew Barrymore) and her kids visit the same African resort, having each bought one half of someone else’s romantic vacation. Of course, Jim and Lauren aren’t a couple. After their blind date at the beginning of the movie, they want nothing to do with each other. This is because Jim takes Lauren to Hooters and drinks her beer while she’s in the bathroom. When Lauren asks which of the many possible reasons Jim’s wife chose to leave him, he says, “Cancer.” It’s a disaster, but the way director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy) films it and the two actors play it, it’s heartfelt almost the whole way through. Jim drinks the beer like a shaking Don Draper. He says “cancer” not in the raspy bellow of Big Daddy or the defeated despair of Punch-Drunk Love, but with warm sadness.
Blended is a good time. Sandler plays a good guy with the faintest hints of crassness. Drew Barrymore plays an exhausted mother who smiles at his antics. The other characters are mostly their kids. Jim and his three tracksuit-wearing girls look like the Ben Stiller family from The Royal Tenenbaums and share a collection of personal issues similar to the Tenenbaums proper. His girls are dealing with (from oldest to youngest) femininity issues wrought from an overbearing father, grief that translates into seeing their mother’s ghost following them around (coping behavior lovingly accepted by Jim), and the simple lack of a mother’s presence for the formative years of girlhood. Then we have Lauren’s sons. The older one struggles with hormones, Jim’s “interloping,” and accidentally calling his mother hot; the younger one struggles with boundless energy and hitting a baseball. There are literally eight dilemmas going on in the lives of secondary characters that Blended juggles without a sweat. Things get generic more than once, and Blended often feels like a kid’s movie, but along with Jim’s own grief and Lauren’s struggles with a petulant ex-husband (played with perfect cringe by Community’s Joel McHale), there’s a whole lot on this script’s plate that gets gobbled down heartily without regurgitation or bloating.
There are also some strangely artistic touches. Picture a gorgeous green basketball court in the hot sun. Then picture Terry Crews walking out of nowhere with a swath of men wearing orange garments and softly singing, “You suck, you suck, you suck,” like a reggae background guitar while Crews narrates teenage failure in basketball through song. It’s sort of mesmerizing. Or how about the quiet scene near the beginning where Jim buys tampons for his daughter under fluorescent lights and midnight muzak. He sees Lauren behind the magazine rack and gives her advice on which dirty magazine would replace her son’s destroyed centerfold. It’s a warm exchange that plays on crass notes. Their conversation in the parking lot has crickets in the background.
These are subtle touches in a relaxing movie. A surprisingly quiet movie where Jim makes a loud noise during a couples’ massage but quiets down quickly, as if embarrassed to break the atmosphere. People say Adam Sandler makes movies to go on vacation. Blended is Adam Sandler bringing us with him. Nothing groundbreaking happens. You can probably guess the whole story within five minutes. But from shots of African animals yawning and waking up to conversations where Jim sounds contagiously relaxed (if a little forlorn) to confrontations that reach catharsis without raising the volume, and end suddenly with sparkling blue music from Terry Crews and the background dancers, this movie feels like a soothing breeze for two hours that seem like ninety minutes, tops.
You come away feeling like Kevin Nealon. Best known as the chilled-out guru accountant from Weeds, Nealon appeared in Happy Gilmore as the spiritual golfer who advises Happy to “send the ball back home.” He plays a similar role here, except his goofy wisdom is embraced. Given Jim’s abiding calm and acceptance of everyone’s foibles, you wonder if Sandler himself has been breathing deeply. Unlike earlier Happy Madison films, there are no antagonists to be found. Everybody is the good guy. There’s one semi-antagonist, but he’s more or less shrugged off. If Happy Madison films are yardsticks for the average Joe in America (perhaps nobody said they were, but if they are), Blended shows how people are becoming more tolerant these days, but also more accepting and loving. Good vibes and high fives.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good Times)