Written by: David Caspe.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Donny), Andy Samberg (Todd), Leighton Meester (Jamie), Vanilla Ice (Himself), James Caan (Father McNally), Milo Ventimiglia (Chad), Blake Clark (Gerald), Meagen Fay (Helen), Tony Orlando (Steve Spirou), Will Forte (Phil), Rachel Dratch (Phil's Wife), Nick Swardson (Kenny), Peggy Stewart (Grandma Delores), Luenell (Champale), Ciara (Brie), Ana Gasteyer (Mrs. Ravensdale), Eva Amurri Martino (Mary McGarricle), Justin Weaver (Young Donny), Susan Sarandon (Mary McGarricle), Todd Bridges (Himself), Dan Patrick (Randall Morgan), Rex Ryan (Jim Nance).
Watching That’s My Boy was a depressing experience for me. It wasn’t that it was yet another painfully unfunny Adam Sandler comedy – I’ve gotten used to not really liking Sandler’s films in the 17 years since his first starring role – in the horrible Billy Madison. Sandler can be a very good actor when he teams up with more established filmmakers. He deserved an Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), which brilliantly deconstructed Sandler’s onscreen persona. H was also pretty good in James L. Brooks’ Spanglish (2004), excellent in Mike Binder’s underrated Reign Over Me (2007) and very good in Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009). But for whatever reason, he doesn’t seem interested in doing those types of roles very often – perhaps it’s because none of those films were very popular with audiences and aside from Punch Drunk Love, to call the critical reaction to those other films mixed may well be kind. Sure, there are other decent films on his resume – Anger Management (2003), The Longest Yard (2005), and moments of Happy Gilmore (1996) and The Wedding Singer (1998). But for the most part I have to say I have found most of Sandler’s films bad at best, and insufferable at worst. For the most, I’ve decided to skip them – missing such recent “gems” as Bedtime Stories, Just Go With It and Jack & Jill. And yet, something about That’s My Boy – or more specifically some of the reviews I skimmed yesterday, even the bad ones – made me think that I had to give That’s My Boy a chance, which I wasn’t planning on doing. I should have trusted my gut because That’s My Boy is a horrible movie – almost completely devoid of humor from start to finish. But the reason I found this film much more depressing than dreck like Big Daddy, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Eight Crazy Nights or You Don’t Mess With the Zohan is that the basic setup for That’s My Boy is ingenious in some ways. In fact, I can imagine a filmmaker like Todd Solondz turning this same material – even keeping the same cast and major plot points – into a dark, comedic masterpiece – one that takes the moral questions the movie raises only to mock seriously.
That’s My Boy opens in 1984, where young Donny Berger is a typical 13 year old boy in that he thinks about nothing except sex all day every day. He has a crush on his hot teacher, Miss McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino) – and is shocked and delighted when she responds in kind. When they two are caught having sex in front of the whole school, Donny becomes a celebrity and Miss McGarricle ends up in prison for 30 years – leaving behind a son for Donny to raise. Flash forward 30 years, and Donny (Sandler) is now a washed up has been, famous only for screwing his teacher, and now deep in debt. He’s also an alcoholic and a complete and total asshole. He needs to come up with $43,000 over the weekend, or go to jail for tax evasion for 3 years. His only hope is his son – who he named Han Solo Berger, because it’s the “coolest name ever”, who is now a rich hedge fund manager. The problem is, he left home when he was 18, and hasn’t spoken to Donny since – telling everyone his parents died in an explosion. He even changed his name – the much more boring Todd Peterson (Andy Sandberg), and this weekend happens to be his wedding – where he’ll marry Jamie (Leighton Meester), who may just be a gold digger. So obviously, Donny decides to crash the party.
Whether intentionally or not, That’s My Boy raises some interesting moral questions. It exploits, with full knowledge, the double standard that society has for teenage boys having sex with their teachers compared to teenage girls who do the same thing. If a male teacher has sex with his young student, he is rightfully called a pervert and a rapist, but when a female teacher does the same thing, we snicker and turn them into celebrities and tabloid fodder. But Donny is a victim – he was in fact raped – and to a certain extent, That’s My Boy addresses the trauma by turning Donny into a true mess – a broken down drunk, who has never progressed in maturity past the age of 13. Yet it seems the movie thinks this has more to do with Donny being a has been – a child “star” who everyone forgot than what he went through. The movie even calls what happened between them “love”. During the course of the movie, they are other sexual misadventures, including incest that the movie plays for laughs, and never takes seriously. Now a filmmaker like the aforementioned Todd Solondz could turn this into an intricate moral puzzle – one where he makes everyone into real characters, and you don’t know what is right and what is wrong.
Todd Solondz\s latest film, Dark Horse, has been admired by many, but not by me. To me, it was a failed attempt to poke holes in the “man child” movies recently popularized by Judd Apatow, where an immature man, who is far too old to be acting like a teenager, but is anyway, just needs to the love of a good woman to make him grow up. The one thing Solondz gets right is that people are if you’re a 30 year old jerk, nothing is going to change that. And in a way, that is what That’s My Boy is saying as well. Yes, Donny and Todd will eventually make up and become close again (did you honestly expect something different?), but it isn’t Donny who learns a lesson – he’s the same asshole at the end of the film that he was at the beginning. Instead, it is Todd who needs to learn to loosen up – to stop trying to be a success and be “normal”, but to let go and become more like Donny. Again, if the movie addressed who screwed up that really is, it could have been interesting – but instead it makes it all seem like a happy ending instead.
I know some will think that perhaps I am taking this movie too seriously – that it was made just to be a stupid, profane comedy – a two hour time waster for people who, unlike me, find Sandler’s comic persona amusing, or who likes to hear him do funny voices. Hell, if you like this sort of thing, you may well like That’s My Boy – Sandler does precisely what you expect him to be. And Samberg is well suited to play Sandler’s son, although making him such a button down square doesn’t allow him to go off the wall crazy, which is when he is at his best. The best performance in the movie may well be by Milo Ventimiglia as Meester’s gung ho, Marine brother, who really does go for broke – and was involved in, I think, all the moments in the movie that made me smile (I don’t think I ever laughed). Perhaps I am taking the movie too seriously – or at least more seriously than the filmmakers intended it to be. And yet, I cannot help it. The movie wades into murky moral terrain, which is fine, but since the film doesn’t take the questions it brings up seriously I could never really get over it. You could make a great movie out of this material – even a great dark, hilarious comedy out of it – but you need to take the questions it brings up with respect, and not just the as the fodder to hang tired jokes off of. I’m not offended by the questions the movie raises or that they try to make it into a comedy – I’m offended that the movie doesn’t have anything to say about the questions it raises.