"Big Daddy"

Adam Sandler is cinema's nicest loudmouthed jerk.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"Most critics are cynical assholes," a character opines late in "Big Daddy," at just about the moment in the movie when a critic's jaded boredom
with vomit jokes and treacly life lessons might indeed be kicking in. Call
it a preemptive strike on the part of star and co-writer Adam Sandler.
Because he may be an asshole, but one thing you can never accuse
Sandler of is cynicism.

Sandler -- who, since his "Saturday Night Live" days, has displayed a
particular talent for portraying some of the most gratingly annoying
characters ever beamed through a cathode ray or projected onto a screen --
is, in many ways, your typical $20 million-a-picture comedic jerk. No
matter what the vehicle, his role rarely varies -- he's the schmuck
with vast stores of hostility just waiting to be farcically tapped. In this
regard, he's not much different from the oafs Jim Carrey used to play
before going off to become a serious actor,
or the bodily function-obsessed menfolk of the Farrelly
brothers' early oeuvre. Yet despite his cinematic flair for beating Bob
Barker senseless with a golf club or terrorizing the guests at a nuptial
feast with a snarling version of "Love Stinks," Sandler always remains, at
the heart of things, an old softy -- a man who loves grandmas, little children and pretty ladies who don't care how big a flake he is.

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Sonny Kofax, the hero of "Big Daddy," is Sandler's standard alter ego -- a 30-ish underachiever who threw away his law degree to become a
one-day-a-week toll booth worker. His dad nags him to get a real job; his
roommate's fiancie, Corinne (Leslie Mann, who appeared in "George of the Jungle"), thinks
he's a parasite; and his careerist vixen girlfriend, Vanessa (Kristy
Swanson), is so fed up with his so-called lifestyle she's ready to put him on
the train to Dumpsville. But Sonny is more than a mere lumpen mass of
ESPN-watching inertia. He's sensitive, gay-friendly and mentally nimble
enough to give legal advice to his attorney friends. Little surprise, then,
that when an adorable 5-year-old orphan (played by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse)
appears on his doorstep, Sonny melts faster than gum on hot pavement. It
doesn't hurt that he thinks adopting the tyke can change Vanessa's mind about breaking up with him.

It turns out that taking in a foundling is not in fact the best way to
impress a woman, especially when one's dubious parenting skills could
provide enough fodder for a week's worth of "Sally Jessy" episodes. Before
long, Sonny is officially emancipated from Vanessa and bonds with his
small charge in ways Dr. Spock never imagined -- he teaches young Julian the
art of public urination, hauls him around to seedy bars, uses him as
bait to pick up chicks in Central Park and feeds him multiple packets of
ketchup for lunch. Surprisingly, none of Sonny's atypical child-rearing practices
attract the notice of Social Services, until it's discovered that he
isn't Julian's biological father -- at which point Sonny
finds himself in danger of losing the one person he truly loves.

If all of this sounds a little schizophrenically formulaic, it is. An Adam Sandler
movie always walks the line between cheap gags and surprisingly genuine
sentiment, between white-hot coals of rage and warm chocolate pudding
puddles of love. At times, the contradiction is pretty
entertaining, especially when Sandler's working both sides of his persona
simultaneously. There's something both jovially good-natured and undeniably
deviant about taking a child trick-or-treating and browbeating a
frightened homeowner out of his Rolex and CD collection. And it's hard not
to be amused by a guardian whose overprotectiveness extends to
interrogating a playground full of toddlers about their drug and alcohol use.

But for all "Big Daddy's" amiable and decidedly warped appeal, a comedy
still succeeds or fails by how much it can make you laugh. And the film's
jokes, stretched out over 90 minutes, aren't that funny. A
running gag about Sonny's contempt for Corinne's past as a Hooters waitress
falls flat the first time, but it's beaten into the ground and
flogged lifeless. And the bucketsful of pee, spit and puke that litter the film
seem naughty at first but soon become just plain tiresome.

Sandler and his fellow writers don't quite know what to do with the
other members of the cast -- there's a foreign delivery guy (the
consistently insufferable Rob Schneider), a weirdo homeless dude (Steve
Buscemi, who had memorably hilarious cameos in "Billy Madison" and "The
Wedding Singer,"
but strikes out here) and a cantankerous old barfly
(Edmund Lyndeck) with the worst teeth this side of
"Austin Powers." What
movie are these characters supposed to be acting in? They have almost
nothing to do with the plot, and their pathetic antics aren't funny enough
to stand on their own as set pieces. They're just padding -- bad, bad
padding. Finally, casting Leslie Mann and Joey Lauren Adams ("Chasing Amy")
as squeaky-voiced sisters certainly scores points for
believability, but add a small child wif his own weird wittle speech pattens to
the mix, and you've got yourself a movie that at times makes you wish it were dubbed.

As we settle into yet another summer of doofuses (Austin and Jar Jar are just the beginning), Adam Sandler may yet emerge as a dork to be reckoned with. His
aggressive crankiness appeals to anyone who's ever wanted to toss a stick in
the path of a speeding roller blader, his innocently juvenile sense of
humor speaks to those who can still work up a giggle over the word "poop"
and his gentle concern for all things small and helpless speaks to those of
us who like to believe that it's possible to possess both a decent soul and a certain vulgarity of character. It's a concept not without its sweet appeal -- if only it were a little wittier, I might
actually be convinced.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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