The on-screen pairing of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore is one of diminishing returns. The first time they partnered up, on 199-SOMETHING amiable “The Wedding Singer,” the chemistry was palpable and it was wrapped in a movie that, in retrospect, is one of the funnier, more charming films in Sandler’s oeuvre, doused in melancholy and bejeweled with period detail, while 200-SOMETHING’s “50 First Dates” was ickier and less stable (mental deficiencies are so romantic); it was a comedy that was beneath either of them, much less them as a duo. And with this week’s “Blended,” they’ve hit rock bottom. “Blended” is probably the worst of the bunch, a movie that is, in its subtle way, as offensive and mean-spirited as anything Sandler has done, but in a way that is so cuddly, there’s the possibility it could, somehow, go unnoticed.
“Blended” opens with a truly terrible first date: Jim (Sandler), is a boorish buffoon who asks Lauren (Barrymore) out to Hooter’s. He drinks her beer. He refuses to make eye contact, since a giant flat screen TV is perched on the wall behind her, and when he orders her extra-spicy hot wings, he offers her cheesy onion soup to drink. Classic Sandler. Neither one of them thinks that they’ll see the other again, but considering this is a movie, it’s only a matter of time before they do.
Lauren is a divorcee with a pair of young boys and an idiot ex-husband (Joel McHale). She is an uptight control freak who co-owns a business where she organizes other people’s closets (her business partner is played by Wendy McLendon-Covey from “Bridesmaids“), while Jim is a widower with three young girls, each of whom is dealing with their mother’s death in their own way. Jim also works at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store and Shaquille O’Neal plays his coworker for some reason. Through a turn of events that would strain the plausibility of a below-average episode of “Three’s Company” (and, honestly, the details are not worth reprinting here), both families end up going on a trip to Africa together and having to share a deluxe suite in a luxury hotel that seems to be celebrating, for reasons that are never made clear, “blended” families. Presumably a lot of smoothies will also be dispensed.
While in Africa, you’ll never believe what happens – Jim and Lauren learn from each other in terms of their respective skills as parents and realize that they might actually be in love. This, of course, after Adam Sandler and one of the kids ride ostriches like in “Swiss Family Robinson,” Barrymore gets involved in a disastrous hang gliding outing, and both of them look out onto the savannah to notice two rhinos fucking, at which point an unnamed African waiter looks into the camera and says, “You won’t see that in New Jersey.”
“Blended” is clumsy and slapdash in all of the ways that most Adam Sandler comedies are clumsy and slapdash (he doesn’t even get out of his oversized sweatpants in this one), with little thought put into the movie’s pacing or craftsmanship. And at the same time it’s also charming and oddly engaging, in the way most Adam Sandler comedies are, like if you were flipping through cable channels on a lazy Saturday afternoon you might stop to watch a few minutes of, say, “Billy Madison” or “The Waterboy.” Sandler and Barrymore commit themselves admirably, and they’re both very charming and it’s sometimes fun to watch them interact. (It’s also worth noting that Kevin Nealon, in a thankless supporting role, is a hoot, too.) That dim bulb sweetness is very much accountable here, as well, enough to the point that you almost forgive it for its toxic insensitivity. But you just can’t. Sandler can’t shabadoo his way out of this one.
Most of the heat surrounding “Blended” (and, trust us, there will be plenty) will be centered around the movie’s depiction of “Africa,” and we use quotes because this movie is about as African as Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. They barely leave the sprawling compound where they’re stationed, except for one painful moment where the kids are walking through a dilapidated village and one of them uses racial slang that made us literally cringe. The African characters too are poorly sketched, and exist almost purely to service the script’s needs.
One character that is so nebulous that we can’t quite decide if he’s actually racist, is played by the more-than-game Terry Crews, as the lead singer of an African soul band who also becomes the movie’s de facto Greek chorus, popping up during important plot points. It’s pretty stupid. But Crews gives it his all, and some of the movie’s least guilt-inducing giggles come from his mere presence, biceps bulging and hair a springy tousle of tribal approximation. But the fact that it probably is horribly racist makes us want to take back those giggles.
More insidious than the overt stereotyping, though, is the movie’s insistence to reinforce hetero-normative relationships and tired gender roles. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is the fact that Sandler’s girls are essentially tomboys, with haircuts lifted directly from Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” and an enthusiasm for organized sports (one of them is named Espn, after the 24-hour sports channel). But at some point, Barrymore shows the oldest girl that her sexual ambiguity isn’t an asset but rather a hindrance and decides to gussy her up and make her more traditionally “girly.” Oof. What’s more is that the whole point of “Blended” reveals itself to be to double-underline the fact that for a family to work, like really work, it has to have a mother and a father. In the fucked-up, fifties sitcom version of real life that “Blended” presents, single parents are incapable of truly raising their children. And this is an idea so stupid and enraging that not even an all-monkey band performing George Michael‘s “Careless Whisper” can make us overlook it. [D]