The Normal Guy

Big Daddy
area theaters

I've gotta give it up for Adam Sandler: There has been no more honest exploration of young, white, mainstream middle-class manhood in Nineties cinema than his string of "comedy" hits, up to and including his latest, Big Daddy. For better or worse, Sandler puts it all on view: the defensiveness, the irritation over p.c. behavioral rules, the obsession with revenge, the squeamishness over gay sexuality and feminism, the fascination with bodily fluids. Not to mention the assumption of economic privilege whenever a fellow finally decides he wants a "real" job.

From the schizy golfer of Happy Gilmore to the violent simpleton of The Waterboy, Sandler has fashioned some outrageous sendups. No "women's film" could get away with such relentless skewering--heck, Thelma & Louise was slammed for portraying men as insensitive. Imagine if it had featured a drooling, gibbering idiot whose idea of settling conflict is a head-butt at full speed! Admittedly, I'm not exactly certain the creator of these characters and his millions of viewers are in on the joke. At points in these movies, I get the weird feeling that I'm supposed to identify with Sandler's protagonists--that, with them, I'm supposed to enjoy laughing at fat people or vomit.

Big Daddy apparently represents Sandler's plunge into more "grown-up" movies; Entertainment Weekly calls it a "female-friendly story," which means girls like me are expected to appreciate it. As in The Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore, Sandler's aimless law-school graduate Sonny is a winsome loser, earnestly in love (or at least in lust) with his way-beautiful girlfriend (Kristy Swanson)--but not willing to trade morning cartoons and cereal for business suits, as she demands. This time, though, Sandler plays a "regular" guy: mainstream clothes, flattering haircut, less of a hockey fetish, less of a temper.

Of course, when a child shows up on his doorstep, this normal guy tries to use the kid to get back the fed-up girlfriend. And this normal guy entertains the five-year-old boy by teaching him how to loogie and suck the spit back up, in addition to tripping in-line skaters with sticks and mocking immigrants who can't read English. If this kind of stuff makes you laugh, you're probably normal, too. The carrot stick condescendingly held out for us females--including the next pretty love interest, Layla (Joey Lauren Adams)--is that Sonny eventually, predictably will learn to love little Julian (played by the Sprouse twins, Cole and Dylan), and start to straighten up and fly right (into lucrative employment, natch).

Even before this transformation occurs, pieces of the old, belligerent Sandler persona are being picked up by supporting actors. Julian, naturally, begins to enjoy the sight of other people hurting: This predilection is supposed to seem at once cute and bad. When a college friend of Sonny's is totally freaked that two of their buddies are now lovers, the new, "grown-up" Sonny suggests he join the KKK; still, the camera keeps extraneously cutting from shots of the men touching to their friend's repulsed face. Really, isn't homosexuality hilarious?!

Rigorously two-faced, Big Daddy trots out tolerance but sneakily makes jokes pandering to morons. What little energy it has comes from the celebration of irresponsibility, not--as the plot would have it--maturity (the corporate version). The movie pretends to a queasiness about daddies (Sonny doesn't get along with his) while slavishly imitating Sandler's comic forefathers, the first SNL generation and their Stripes. In a running gag, Sonny repeatedly jeers at a friend's bosomy fiancée for once working at Hooters; he frequents the place himself, though, and the camera lingers over cleavage as much as possible (I guess it's okay to leer, but bumptious to bare).

Julian turns out to be the offspring of a Hooters waitress and a partying lawyer. The movie's finale even takes place at a Hooters. All of which leads to the impression that, for Sandler and his ilk, modern manhood (or the dream of it, really) consists of hanging out at a friendly club where uniformly bodacious waitresses serve up babies and beers, and Bruce Springsteen warbles "Growing Up." Again, it's an incisive caricature. But given the Sandler persona's earnest struggles out of "infantile" poverty and into "responsible" prosperity, I don't think Big Daddy's vision of adulthood is meant to be a joke.

"I just want things to go back to the way they used to be," Sonny complains early on. No wonder. The way it used to be, middle-class white men agreed to buckle down and work for the privilege of helping to author history's script--in which they got to poke fun at everybody else. Big Daddy tries to restart that tired party. And it's as flat, boring, and tasteless as the warm dregs of a Bud Light.

 
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