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Big Daddy

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 2 July 1999

  Directed by Dennis Dugan.

Starring Adam Sandler, Joey Lauren Adams,
Jon Stewart, Rob Schneider,
Cole and Dylan Sprouse,
and Kristy Swanson

Screenplay by Steve Franks, Tim Herlihy,
Adam Sandler,
based on a story by
Steve Franks

Big Daddy is the latest in a string of compromised movies that want to have their cake and eat it, too: movies that want to cash in on family values while embracing sophomoric, snot-flicking tendencies as well. This whole wishy-washy trend came to full roar when James Cameron sent Arnold Schwarzenegger back from the future in Terminator 2 to teach young John Connor that violence was OK, as long as you only aimed for the kneecaps. The film was deservedly praised for its malevolently morphing special effects, but Cameron’s attempts to preach both "turn the other cheek" and "apply fist to face" were cynical and phony.

Then a slew of conflicted comedies crawled into Hollywood’s family-aimed nursery, including Jack, Mrs. Doubtfire, Vice Versa, Liar Liar, and Look Who’s Talking. In Doubtfire, Robin Williams teased a swimsuit-donning Pierce Brosnan about his shriveled family jewels ("that water must really be cold") before attempting to dissuade the would-be-suitor from dating his wife with critical cunning ("she’s got the crabs, and I’m not talking dungeness!"). Meanwhile, the whole film wrapped itself in a kid-friendly wrapper and tacked on a happy ending to ensure that the nuclear family audience wouldn’t be too turned off by the vulgarity to fork out its box-office dollars.

The Adam Sandler vehicle Big Daddy continues to milk this unlikely fusion of Kramer versus Kramer and Animal House, with its goulash of gross gags and warm fuzzies. It’s the only film out there that couples paternal lessons in on-the-street urination and loogie-hawking (another Cameron-inspired trend from Titanic) with teary-eyed mass embracing between fathers and sons during a mushy courtroom finale. "Boobs ‘n Bibs" might be the best way to summarize Big Daddy’s two-faced embrace of things both decent and debauched.

The plot is one of those "concepts" that you always associate with corporate filmmaking at its most produced-by-numbers. Boy meets girl. Girl, disgusted with his selfish, immature habits, dumps boy. Boy searches for way to prove his commitment to others by adopting a child. Much zany potty humor and touching sentiment ensue. This time out, Adam Sandler plays the immature man-child fighting for the respect of others. To Sandler’s credit, he doesn’t overplay the role and freak out like one of the Evening Update oddities he played on Saturday Night Live. His Sonny Koufax is your basic uneducated, thirty-something screw-up who works in a tollbooth and lives with Kevin, a yuppie roommate (John Stewart).

After Kevin leaves on a business trip for China and his six-year old love child is dumped on the doorstep by a terminally ill mother, it’s up to Sonny to carry the paternal torch. He calls social services to report the unexpected porch package and turn the kid in, but finds himself turning to mush in the company of this cherubic little towhead. Before you can say "paternal instincts," Sonny is impersonating the still absent Kevin and adapting the youthful Julian (played by the twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) as his own. Meanwhile, there are the usual throwaway supporting characters that materialize here and there to beef things up. It seems that to illustrate the concept that families come in all types of diverse shapes and sizes, there’s the obligatory couple of gay friends: also lurking in the shadows is the hero-hating priss, and the sinister social worker. Again, Mrs. Doubtfire used all three of these devices during its schizophrenic spin on this tired formula.

The middle section of Big Daddy is a smorgasbord of bonding rituals so calculatedly crass that it’s hard to even conjure up a few guilty belly laughs. Julian requests a night light in his room. Sonny accommodates him with a "live nude girls" neon sign. Cute. When a restaurant owner refuses Sonny’s request to use the establishment’s restroom, he and Julian wreak their vengeance by relieving themselves on the wall. Clever! When rollerbladers guide down a steep park trail, Sonny tosses a stick in front of them and Julian giggles with glee as they plummet into the asphalt. Ha ha! The movie asks viewers to delight in these sophomoric and cruel stunts, in a There’s Something About Mary kinda way. The crucial difference between that recent Farrelly Brothers hit and Big Daddy, however, is that the former never apologized for its startling tackiness. And even though its barbs were often pointed at the zitty, the disabled, and the gay, it seemed to genuinely love its characters. There was affection beneath the sleazy surface. In addition, Mary’s gags were original (semen used as hair gel might not be tasteful, but you certainly hadn’t seen it done before). Big Daddy, on the other hand, seems to feel genuine disdain for anyone over thirty (as evidenced by Sandler’s criticism of an ex-girlfriend’s new grey haired suitor’s "old, loose skin and balls") and, indeed, anyone with enough of a life to steer clear of movies like this one.

By the end of its dopey courtroom finale, in which hugs, not hits, are endorsed as a cure-all, viewers are assured that Big Daddy is simply the result of calculated corporate types trying to find an approach that will appeal to as many different demographics as possible. It’s a sales scheme that even W. Clement Stone would feel guilty about using. When poor Julian takes the stand in court and tells the judge that "Sonny taught me that Styx are one of the great seventies bands, who were poorly reviewed because most critics are cynical assholes," its clear that Sandler is comparing the much-slagged group to himself. But if Big Daddy is the best he can do, add another cynic to the list.

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