In the late '90s, when Adam Sandler decided to transition from imbecile par excellence to romantic lead, he teamed up with Drew Barrymore to make The Wedding Singer, a very silly and very lovable '80s comedy that brought a softer, more human side to his Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison persona. That film, easily his best-reviewed at the time, suggested he had a bright future in rom-com land, but for the most part, he hasn't taken the bait, instead continuing to play everyman man-children or, as he's gotten older, relatively normal family men who still have a juvenile, one-of-the-guys streak to them.
Sandler hasn't completely abandoned romantic comedies, but he does seem to prefer doing them with Barrymore: Like his stable of directors, writers, and costars who pop up in film after film, she's practically part of his filmmaking family, except she's about the only one who can reliably pull anything respectable out of him. The new Blended isn't very good—I wouldn't even say it's good—but it is several degrees more tolerable than Sandler's recent films, eschewing the gonzo weirdness and manic, WTF energy of That's My Boy or Jack and Jill, and carrying a faint enough trace of likability to suggest what the guy could do if he really applied himself.
Of course, "applying himself" is the antithesis of his just-hanging-out comedic vibe these days. He prefers the lazy gag, the obvious pop-culture reference, the dumb joke, the unambiguous sappy moment. Blended has all of these in abundance, but it is sweeter and more genuine than he usually allows—if even his utter dreck like Grown Ups 2 can be sizable hits, this one is practically his Titanic.
Sandler plays Jim, a recent widow who goes on a blind date with Lauren (Barrymore), who recently split from her self-centered husband (Joel McHale, with nothing to do). The date goes horribly—insert copious Hooters product placement here—and although they resolve never to see each other again, they keep bumping into each other; long, preposterous story short, they independently lie their way into a fancy, all-expenses-paid family vacation in South Africa. Neither knew the other was coming, and so they have to put up with each other long enough to realize they're in love.
Blended is directed by Frank Coraci, who also did The Wedding Singer (and Click, and The Waterboy), and it's a high compliment for a Sandler vehicle to say that this is one of his rare movies not to look utterly ghastly. Shot on location, it's filled with pleasing tourist-porn shots of safaris and wildlife, which sometimes makes the characters' ugly-American parochialism all the more tacky. (This is the sort of film that highlights African drummers so that Jim's and Lauren's kids can bust all their funky-fresh dance moves.) But while Coraci mostly points the camera at the funny people and lets them do their thing, he's fortunate to be working with a script (by Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera) that has just enough resonance to make the predictable setup and tired clichés tolerable enough to keep you from walking out of the theater.
Sandler can still be an amped-up goofball, but more recently, that tendency has been tempered by more conventional family films and comedies like Just Go With It. (And that isn't counting such non-canon works as Judd Apatow's Funny People, which operate like actual movies, with plots and characters and a general sense of coherence.) Blended is another example of the (relatively) kinder, gentler Sandler, and he plays Jim with a bighearted compassion he hasn't always shown. (Not only is Jim mourning his dead wife, he has to help his three daughters through their different adolescent anxieties.) Still too immature (or scared) to let go of his juvenile side, the actor can't leave a tender moment alone, always throwing in some toilet humor or, in the film's most scarring moment, the image of two rhinos humping. But when he stops screwing around, he can play a believable romantic hero, shyly courting this uptight woman who has more in common with him than he suspects.
But I'm not sure if we can give Sandler too much credit for his almost-human performance. In The Wedding Singer and then 50 First Dates, Barrymore managed to rein him in, normalize his oddness. The same thing happens here, and I suspect that Barrymore has enough goofball spirit herself to relate to Sandler. Though she's turning 40 next year, she still comes across as a big kid onscreen, even when she's playing a character with two boys; Lauren's persnickety personality is really just a costume to be shed once she predictably falls for this big, dumb lug.
There's not a single surprising or believable romantic moment in Blended, but Sandler and Barrymore almost sell it anyway—their two-overgrown-dopes routine has its charms. I definitely wouldn't say I recommend it, but if you're stuck going to it with your kids or significant other, the good news is that it's more tolerable than you probably expect. When it comes to an Adam Sandler film, that's practically a rave review.
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