Stooping To Stumble Case File #29: That’s My Boy
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flops, critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
When Rock Of Ages and That’s My Boy flopped the same paradigm-shattering weekend, it felt like a glitch in the matrix. How could both films pander so egregiously, yet fail so miserably? Did America no longer enjoy paying money to have its intelligence insulted and its basest instincts appealed to? If people weren’t going to see a movie just because it stars Adam Sandler or Tom Cruise and enjoyed a blitzkrieg-like ad campaign, then what certainties were left in this sick, sad, strange, unknowable world?
The twin failures of That’s My Boy and Rock Of Ages represented, on some level, a refutation of glib, easy ’80s nostalgia. The Reagan decade served as both the time period and the theme of Rock Of Ages, a star-studded retro party based on the hit musical. That’s My Boy takes place largely in the present, but, like its jean-jacket-wearing protagonist, it seems stuck in a hair-metal video from the ’80s, specifically Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” which figures prominently in the film and could have been its alternate title.
That’s My Boy and Rock Of Ages trade proudly in full-throated vulgarity. But while Rock Of Ages is reined in by its PG-13 rating, That’s My Boy’s extremely hard R empowers it to be as nasty as it wants to be. At least it has the courage of its sleazy convictions, committing wholeheartedly to being stupid, scatological, puerile, offensive, and sophomoric. It’s a film where incest and statutory rape aren’t merely the subject of tasteless, unfunny jokes. Incest and statutory rape are pretty much the cornerstones of the film’s plot.
Sandler is one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, but his popularity is curiously fragile. Put Sandler in a family-friendly, high-concept comedy (that is liberally dosed with sentimentality and scatology) along with some adorable kids or a magical remote control, and he’s the closest thing we have to a commercial sure thing. But if Sandler steps outside his comfort zone and gets all arty (Punch Drunk Love), dramatic (Spanglish, Reign Over Me), or raw and self-loathing (Funny People), the box-office grosses sink. Sandler may have a huge and devoted fan base, but they won’t follow him far.
In That’s My Boy, Sandler plays a lovable douchebag the world adores no matter how obnoxiously he behaves. In fact, the more obnoxious he is, the more women gaze at him with equal parts lust and awe, and the more men want to be him. Audiences were less forgiving. This was not the naughty-but-nice Sandler they had fallen in love with, in spite of the film’s repeated assurances that somewhere above his character’s enormous cock and beneath his strip-club boorishness lies a heart of gold.
The screenplay to That’s My Boy is credited to David Caspe, creator of the much-loved sitcom Happy Endings, but according to an interview co-star Andy Samberg conducted with Collider, the comedy dream team of David Wain, Ken Marino, Tim Herlihy, Robert Smigel, and Sandler himself all helped polish it. And that’s not counting the improvisation and ideas Samberg brought to the project. As Pete Holmes has said, it takes a roomful of geniuses to put out a shitty show, and it took six talented writers, many of whom have been working with Sandler for ages and should have incredible chemistry with him, to write a go-for-broke comedy with maybe three laughs. And those are attributable to the stunted, un-evolved part of my brain (let’s call it the Sandler stem) that finds Vanilla Ice and references to the “Whassup?” Budweiser campaign far funnier than I probably should. Given the film’s screenwriting-by-committee conception, we may never know which of these gifted professionals penned the line, “I would fuck that kid again and again. He makes me feel like there’s a rainbow coming out of my beaver.”
In spite of all that, That’s My Boy has a lot of unrealized potential. There’s considerable comic and dramatic power in the idea of a fortysomething manchild who is stuck emotionally at the age when he was sexually violated by an authority figure. But the most insight That’s My Boy can glean from that situation is that banging a hot-ass teacher with your wicked-long schlong when you’re still in middle school makes you the most awesome-cool party-starter this side of David Lee Roth.
Sandler’s rancid raunch-fest unapologetically depicts a 13-year-old being molested as the ultimate Letters To Penthouse fantasy, a scenario that begins with Sandler’s younger self being called into detention, then fucked senseless by his teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) while another student listens on in delight. The scene climaxes, literally and figuratively, when the sounds of white-hot adult-on-child action can be heard by attendees of a school assembly, before a curtain parts to reveal a naked Amurri Martino having sex on a piano with Sandler’s younger self. The audience reacts the way any audience would upon seeing a teacher have loud, enthusiastic sex with a 13-year-old: by breaking out into long, appreciative applause. Imagine this scene with the genders reversed and you have easily the creepiest scene in the history of American mainstream comedy, and that includes Freddy Got Fingered. Funny forgives everything. (Mel Brooks wrote a screenplay about a zany hippie Hitler musical in 1968 and won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.) Unfunny excuses nothing in a scene that has all the wit, sophistication, and jokes of one of those leering Go Daddy Super Bowl commercials.
The union of young Sandler and Amurri Martino produces an offspring and all manner of tabloid press that transforms the young man into a celebrity of the sleaziest variety, a sub-Kato Kaelin bottom-feeder drunkenly and carelessly throwing away his fleeting fame and money on a nonstop party he doesn’t seem to realize has to end. Meanwhile, their child grows up to be Andy Samberg, an uptight businessman whose entire fussy, worrywart personality has been crafted as the strongest possible refutation of his father’s freewheeling ways. Sandler doesn’t worry about anything; Samberg worries about everything. Sandler is proudly irresponsible; Samberg is responsible to a fault. Sandler is a human version of Spuds Mackenzie; Samberg is a white Urkel.
In a desperate attempt to escape the oily shadow of his father’s fame, Samberg has changed his name—originally “Han Solo”—and become a successful businessman engaged to Leighton Meester. At first, Meester appears to be merely a joyless, ball-busting shrew. But since this movie is the product of the Happy Madison clubhouse in full “He-Man Woman Haters” mode, she’s actually revealed to be something far more sinister.
Sandler owes $43,000 in back taxes and will go to jail unless he’s able to raise the money in less than a week. He fortuitously learns that Samberg has become a financial titan in line for a big promotion (because businessmen are always up for big promotions in movies like this) and is getting married in Cape Cod that very weekend. Sandler strikes a deal with a Jerry Springer-like tabloid host (sportscaster Dan Patrick, in one of the film’s many instances of stunt casting) for $50,000 if he can stage a reunion between Sandler, Samberg, and the woman who hilariously molested Sandler as a boy, who has grown up gorgeously to be Susan Sarandon (real-life mother of Amurri Martino). There are a few impediments to the plan, however: Samberg has told everyone that his father died dramatically and wants nothing to do with Sandler when he shows up unexpectedly at a fancy country house and hollers, “Whassssssup!” by means of introduction.
Samberg is so shocked and horrified that he does a spit take all over an old woman. Then, when Sandler says, “Whassup” to Samberg’s asshole boss Tony Orlando (another pointless piece of stunt casting designed primarily to amuse Sandler, who seems to get a kick out of casting childhood heroes in kitschy roles in his films), Orlando stares at him coldly before hollering “Whassup” himself, having been waiting, like myself, for it to come back. Soon the entire fancy party is hollering “Whassup!” in delight before Samberg attempts it himself, at which point everyone glares at Samberg like he’s an idiot.
Like a blue-collar worker who wears the same jeans and eats the same bag lunch every day, Sandler is a creature of habit, so the dynamic of this scene plays out over and over and over again. Sandler behaves boorishly, everyone else delightedly follows his lead, and then Samberg tries to keep up and is shunned for his efforts. It isn’t enough that Samberg’s stiff “What is up?” is met with silence. To truly drive the joke into the ground, the filmmakers have an old woman boo, give him two thumbs down, and yell, “That was terrible, Todd.”
Sandler is not an agent of chaos in an orderly world; he’s a whirling dervish of chaos in a world that’s beyond chaotic, where the laws that govern men no longer apply. It’s Samberg who’s desperately out of step. In a world without manners, morality, or shame, he somehow manages to commit an endless series of faux pas. Sandler hits dingers in Orlando’s private stadium that everyone easily catches until a line drive smashes Samberg in the face. Rather than come to her fiancé’s aid, Meester calls him a vagina, an early indication that she may not be the most loving or considerate partner. While meeting the priest who will perform his wedding (James Caan), Samberg ends up accidentally insulting Caan and the two begin exchanging fisticuffs, a gag that was a whole lot funnier when Bob Barker was kicking Sandler’s ass in Happy Gilmore.
Many talented writers may have worked on That’s My Boy’s screenplay, yet it says a lot about how short the film falls that just about every laugh comes courtesy of Vanilla Ice, who plays himself as Sandler’s douchebag buddy. Whether complaining that after Suge Knight and Queen took their cuts from “Ice Ice Baby” (60 and 50 percent, respectively) he actually owes money every time the song is played, or listening to Sandler imploring him to “stop, collaborate, and listen,” Ice imbues his surprisingly meaty supporting turn with just the right air of don’t-give-a-fuck self-deprecation.
Then Sandler takes Samberg to prison, at which point they’re met by Patrick’s voyeuristic cameras, and the fragile bond between father and son dissipates. Desperate to prove himself to Samberg, and to a lesser extent the audience, Sandler snoops on Meester, whom he suspects of having an affair with Orlando, only to learn that Meester has been carrying on an incestuous relationship with her younger brother (Milo Ventimiglia), a jazz dancer pretending to be a hardass Marine for his family’s benefit.
Much of That’s My Boy’s endless second hour (the film runs 115 minutes, but feels twice as long) is devoted to an unnecessarily convoluted plot involving blackmail, a payout from Meester to Sandler to keep her secret from Samberg, and gender politics that are rancid even for an Adam Sandler movie. All of this builds to the moment when Sandler interrupts his son’s wedding and reveals Meester and Ventimiglia’s secret, at which point Meester lunges at Sandler and he smashes her in the head with a beer bottle. In its climax, the film happily adds “violence against women” (albeit of the self-defense variety) to the list of taboo subjects it tries to mine for comedy.
I was rooting for That’s My Boy because I like Samberg a lot, but he’s castrated here in a thankless straight-man role where he’s playing second fiddle not just to the over-the-top Sandler but also to everyone else onscreen. Sandler is famously generous with his protégés and collaborators, but that doesn’t always extend to giving them anything funny to do. With That’s My Boy, Sandler stepped out of his comfort zone and his audience failed to follow, though I suspect the film will do much better on home video, where the richly deserved R rating won’t hurt it as much. If you’re making a crass comedy for the disturbed 10-year-old in everyone, it helps if 10-year-olds can actually see it without the presence of irresponsible adults willing to turn a blind eye to sex, nudity, incest, profanity, rape, pedophilia, and worst of all, an almost complete absence of laughs.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure