Without a gun pressed to my head, I'm not sure I could narrow down my list of "Things I Detest About Happy Madison Productions" to fewer than 20 elements, but I'm reasonably sure that the embarrassingly inept slapstick, humiliation of frequently enjoyable co-stars, distractingly rampant product placement, and presence of Adam Sandler would all make the cut.
The very first scene in the latest Happy Madison production, director Frank Coraci's Blended, finds Drew Barrymore shrieking while attempting to wash down ultra-spicy buffalo shrimp with French onion soup, consequently getting most of it on her blouse, and the chain-restaurant Hooters name-dropped a half-dozen times while Sandler sits opposite Barrymore wearing a Dick's Sporting Goods polo shirt.
Sweet Jesus, I thought. It's like a big-screen nightmare made just for me.
It might also be a nightmare for anyone expecting anything more substantial than the thus-far-worst movie of 2014, because Blended is a stupefyingly lazy, unfunny, insulting experience, one that handily rivals any other outing released under Sandler's Happy Madison banner. (And remember, we're talking the likes of Jack & Jill, Deuce Bigalo: European Gigolo, and Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star here.) After the moderate charm of 1998's The Wedding Singer, you might have thought the pairing of Sandler and Barrymore had hit its nadir in 2004's 50 First Dates. If so, hoo-boy did you think wrong. A decade after that insufferable rom-com's release, the stars prove more cloying than ever in this putrid The Brady Bunch on Safari fiasco, a movie so devoid of cleverness, sincerity, and recognizable human behavior that it almost seems like some kind of put-on - Sandler daring his aging-frat-boy fan base to not bolt the auditorium before the closing credits.
Gosh, where to begin in describing the atrocities of Blended, in which a disastrous blind date between Sandler's and Barrymore's single parents leads to them, and their collective five children, forming a makeshift family in South Africa? Maybe with Barrymore's tendency to accidentally thwack her son's head against walls every time she carries the sleeping kid through doorways? How about Sandler's early revelation that his first wife died of cancer, lending immediate - and strictly theoretical - layers of unearned pathos to his every repellent doing? Or with Terry Crews' habit of popping, uninvited, into the action to sing witless "ethnic" songs directly to the camera, or Coraci's dismal treatment of every other person of color in the film, all of whom emerge as emptily grinning stooges? (Abdoulaye NGom, as the South African hotel's concierge, is treated particularly abysmally.)
Perhaps with Sandler's boorishness as he tells Barrymore's son that "being a man isn't about pissing and moaning" not long after he himself pissed and moaned at the terrifying sight of a plastic crocodile? Or maybe the mean-spirited jokes directed at Bella Thorne's Hilary, an initially androgynous teen with a Prince Valiant hairdo whom papa Sandler cruelly refers to as "Larry"? (His middle daughter, by the way, is Emma Fuhrmann's Espn, who we learn was named after the cable-sports channel, solidifying the notion that Sandler's cancer-stricken wife was just as stupid as her husband.)
Regardless, by the time a monkey wearing a Hooters outfit showed up to serve beer to the newly romantic leads almost two hours - two hours!!! - into the movie, I'd given up cataloging the prototypically Happy Madison niceties that made me want to gouge my eyes out with a red-hot poker. In trying to salvage something of value in this maddening endeavor, let me simply say that Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe, as a pair of dipstick newlyweds, have a couple of almost-amusing moments in Blended, and Wendi McLendon-Covey gets in a good, too-brief bit in which she speaks to Sandler as if he were a very slow, obnoxious, confused five-year-old. We (almost) laugh because it's (almost) funny, and we (almost) laugh because it's (kinda) true.
Jon Favreau is the former critics' darling who burst onto the scene in 1996's independent release Swingers, enjoyed popular success by directing Elf and the first two Iron Man movies, crash-landed with dismal reviews for Cowboys & Aliens, and is now attempting a personal comeback via his new offering Chef. The movie itself, which Favreau wrote, directed, and stars in, is about a former critics' darling who burst onto the scene with independent-minded recipes, enjoyed popular success by working in a chic Los Angeles restaurant, crash-landed with a dismal review that went viral, and is now attempting a personal comeback via his new food truck. Is it just my imagination, or are we in the midst of a feature-length metaphor here?
Most audiences probably won't care. And even we audiences who recognize this outing as a not-terribly-subtle parallel to Favreau's own career exploits probably won't care too much, given that his latest is certainly preferable to the likes of Cowboys & Aliens. (Though, to be honest, Favreau doesn't help matters by having his title character spout lines such as "Let me see if I've got something to say anymore!" That's not a chef talking; that's a filmmaker talking.) The bigger problem is that Chef is actually two movies - in its first half, it's a profanely paranoid comedy about artistic suppression and the horrors of the Internet; in its second, it's a sweet-tempered family comedy about artistic fulfillment and the joys of the Internet - and neither of them is very good.
There was, I thought, some snap in the early scenes featuring Dustin Hoffman as a practical restauranteur, Oliver Platt as the offending food critic, and Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, and Bobby Cannavale as Favreau's co-workers. (Given that cast, how could there not be some snap?) But the director/writer/star is an aggressively irritating, condescending, self-righteous presence from minute one, and unfortunately, he doesn't become any more endearing once he and his on-screen son (the terrifically naturalistic Emjay Anthony) hit the road selling Cuban food out of a restored van. While the early scenes in L.A. feel intentionally shallow, the formulaic scenes of male bonding that follow feel accidentally shallow, and all of the film's dramatic momentum dries up the second pop and son begin their endless road trip from Miami to California. Chef isn't at all offensive, and it does boast some great live-music performances when the truck lands in Miami and Austin, Texas. But it's still a mostly lifeless and unsatisfying piece of work, and worth a viewing only for the saliva-inducing shots of Favreau's low-rent haute cuisine - Cubanos and pulled barbecue and, in one instance, a grilled-cheese sandwich that you'd swear came from Heaven above. In the film, Favreau is the ex-husband of Sofia Vergara (who has another ex-husband in an eccentric blowhard played by Robert Downey Jr.), and the reasons for their divorce are never specified - and are also, quite frankly, inconceivable. Was she never granted access to those grilled-cheese sandwiches?!