Big Daddy

1219848227_big-daddy-1999-hdtvBy now, you either think Adam Sandler is a likable schlub or you hate his guts. If you are in the latter camp, nothing I can say will convince you that Big Daddy is anything more than Adam doing more of the same. If you’re in the former group, the only relevant information is that … Adam does more of the same. That’s enough for a lot of his fans, and it’s enough for me; the guy has grown on me, and Big Daddy is yet another pleasantly unambitious Sandler vehicle, as comfortable and sloppy as an old hockey jersey. No one will ever mistake these movies for inspired comedies, but you can relax into them and have a good no-brainer evening.

Problem is, how long can Adam Sandler go on playing the doofus who won’t grow up? That’s been his M.O. as far back as 1995’s Billy Madison, where he was an overgrown kid among schoolchildren. Since then, his movies have followed a sort of dual thematic thread. You have your Adam-the-caveman-jock movies (Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy) and your Adam-tries-to-grow-up movies. The runaway hit The Wedding Singer was a grow-up movie, and Big Daddy is another. It’s almost as if the jock movies were for the guys and the grow-up movies were for their girlfriends, who have some hope that the baseball-cap-wearing Sandler fans in their lives will eventually make something of themselves.

Sandler’s character this time, Sonny Koufax, is a lackadaisical toll-booth collector living off a court settlement (a taxi cab ran over his foot). His girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) sees he’s going nowhere and dumps him, as all Sandler first-act girlfriends must do. When a five-year-old boy, Julian (Cole and Dylan Sprouse), lands in Sonny’s lap, he decides to adopt the kid as proof that he’s ready to get serious. While he waits for Social Services to find Julian a new home, though, Sonny takes surrogate fatherhood as a cue to forestall adulthood even longer.

The element of Big Daddy that has annoyed some critics (particularly Roger Ebert, who seems to have a knee-jerk hatred of Sandler) is precisely the one that appealed to me. We live in an age where parents are worrying more than ever about how to raise their kids; the result, I think, has been a generation of neurotic kids, shuttled from soccer practice to soccer practice, and raised by TV and the Internet. Parents talk a good game about parenting, but forget the basic concept of just relaxing with their kids. Sonny, on the other hand, is the least stressed-out dad you could imagine. He can relate to Julian because he’s basically on Julian’s level, and his parenting amounts to goofing off a lot with the kid. The movie comes close to saying that the best parents are the ones with a lot of free time, i.e. without a career.

Big Daddy was directed by Dennis Dugan, who also helmed Sandler’s ode to slapshot hostility Happy Gilmore, so even when the plot gets a little too poignant, Dugan has the sense to treat it lightly. (Even a potentially tearjerking separation scene is played for laughs.) In his jock movies, Sandler plays the undomesticated slob who gets the girl without having to be false to himself; in his grow-up movies, he presents himself as plausible husband and father material. Having done that, where can he go from here? Adam Sandler represents the Atari generation of guys passing uneasily into adulthood, and it will be interesting to see where his instincts take him in the next decade or so.

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