July 12--"Grown Ups 2" is a bit like an oldies musical act. They might be performing now, but every reason to laugh comes from then. Similar to an Alice Cooper or a Bob Dylan concert, much of the joy, if any, lies in remembering what they used to be.
Unfortunately, the not-so-humorous antics designed to make teenage boys laugh circa 1995 do not hold up as well as a song. Dylan can still sing "Hurricane" and Cooper, even at 65, still gives audiences the nightmare they pay for. But watching Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James pal around and recite lines better suited for B-level, late-night stand-up comedy, it is easy to forget if they ever had any talent at all, if they were ever actually funny.
But they were. They had sitcoms and smash box-office hits and classic "Saturday Night Live" characters. It all feels rather distant now. It's not quite classic comedy, yet it's definitely not current, either. Instead, they inhabit an awkward in-between phase, fast approaching the day when fathers drop their jaws as they ask their sons, disbelievingly, "Wait, you really don't know who Adam Sandler is? Well, he was popular, when I was young."
For now, these actors once again play man-children trying to squeeze into their younger selves. This time around, Lenny, Mr. Sandler's typical charming jerk of a character, has moved from Hollywood back to his hometown -- a nameless middle-class suburb somewhere in the continental United States -- with his three children and fashion-designer wife (Salma Hayek). That is about all you need to know. His childhood buddies -- Mr. Spade, Mr. Rock and Mr. James -- live close by with their wives and kids, all of whom are used for occasional comedic fodder. Within the first few minutes jokes are made about Ms. Hayek's body and Mexican accent. Like much of the movie, these are expected and, understandably, provided.
From there, no time is wasted in securing a reason to give the four pals a chance to hang out. It's the last day of school so, of course, the adults want a party for themselves, an '80s-themed party. Could it have been anything else?
Progressing from one lazy scene to the next, the heroes contend with the tropes of wedding anniversaries, teenage daughters and overbearing mothers. But mostly they replicate gags that made them famous to begin with. Mr. Spade plays a womanizing slacker with a son he has never met by a woman he barely remembers. Mr. Rock is the fast-talking witty one with a domineering wife. And Mr. Sandler, with his usual mean-spirited, sarcastic outlook, is afraid of a childhood bully, played by former pro wrestler Steve Austin.
Directed by longtime Sandler collaborator Dennis Dugan, the setting feels like a funhouse of Mr. Sandler's best friends who themselves have grown up playing one offensive stereotype or another in his various films. Cameos abound: former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, "SNL's" Andy Samberg and Taran Killam, Jon Lovitz, Tim Meadows, etc. It is fitting that much of the movie's first half takes place on a school bus, with the four main characters driving around town, reminiscing about the good old days. As actors who have all made careers out of playing lovable losers, the school setting is the place where so much of their humor feels at home: the flatulence jokes, the pubescent ogling of female body parts, the dim-witted racial humor.
In a way, the movie could be entertaining if treated solely as imitations of the characters people know so well. After all, Mr. Spade and Mr. Sandler were once part of the famous Gap Girls "SNL" sketch. It might be well worth the ticket price to watch them update those characters for middle age in the 21st century.
But the film does not wholly embrace this reunion-tour aspect that has the power to be its greatest strength. While Mr. Sandler at one point dresses in a Bruce Springsteen costume, he does not perform his Springsteen impression, a staple from his "SNL" days. Too much time is spent on unnecessary family dynamics, the existential crisis of getting older and the fear of staying relevant. This is illustrated by multiple faceoffs with muscular frat bros, led by Taylor Lautner ("Twilight"), culminating in a somewhat disturbing, ridiculous fight sequence of youth vs. age. All of this makes it yet another very bad Adam Sandler movie.
The actors become walking museums of themselves. "Oh yeah," you can almost hear audience members think as they collectively groan and place heads in hands, embarrassed. "These are the things that used to make us laugh a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday."
In that sense, there is, in fact, something sweet about the film. With its staunch, explicit refusal to grow up, it shows a longing for the past felt not just by aging comedians, but perhaps by numerous members of Generation X. But then they throw in another inane joke and any sense of tenderness is instantly ruined.
Jacob Axelrad: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad.
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