My Dinner With Sandler, Part One
A Word of Introduction
I feel partly responsible for taking on the role of herald for this review. Acting as a metaphorical Sisyphus, carrying the weight of what this film has meant to me. The weight of wanting to write a review for this film for a long time has become a burden to my psyche. Translating my feelings to thoughts into words, and finally, to be cast away for criticisms. Perhaps I feel responsible because I have had the pleasure of experiencing Denis Dugan’s Grown Ups 2 at least thirty times (if my memory is correct). Or, perhaps it is due to my numerous attempts to adapt this film into a musical production. One with dance numbers and songs like Burning Rubber or You're under arrest for stealing my heart (cops duet). However, I can not honestly write a review based on those reasons. To watch a film does not mean you experienced it. No. To me, this has forever been the green light to my Gatsby. My Moby Dick. I fear the idea that if I ever put my feelings onto paper, it will solidify, finalize, or cement my connection to this work. As this film has been with me for nearly seven years, and my feelings and experiences with it seem to elevate or reevaluate themselves, moment by moment. Unfortunately, I have reached a turning point in my life. I understand one fact now that I could not see before. Eventually, one has to dock the ship. At some point, one has to… grow up.
One question I always ask myself when rewatching Grown Ups 2 is, “Does Adam Sandler hate what he is doing?” It’s a fair assessment to question Sandler’s intentions over his prolific career. Sandler has shown his range as an actor with films like Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Uncut Gems. While public perception of Adam Sandler seems to label him as the typical Fool on the Hill, making formulaic, mindless films, it is clear to the avid Sandler viewer that he has genuine dramatic chops when working with directors than his regulars over at Happy Madison Productions. Seeing Sandler's recent attempts at getting nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards, it can be argued that Sandler longs for respect from his peers, critics, and the Academy. The argument can be made that Adam Sandler himself hates the enervated creations he's made in the past decade. However, his very first sequel in his long career seems to counter any claims that Sandler hates what he does. Grown Ups 2 is a film about connecting with friends and family and ignoring the incessant background noise of life, like the stress of work, school, or driving tests. It's a reflection of Happy Madison Productions’ ethos as a whole. As the films made under the banner aren't of quality by any measurable means, they are the bare essentials of what films can be. This is because what is more important to Sandler is the idea of reconnecting with his friends and putting his family in his picture. Adam Sandler can not possibly hate what he makes, as with Happy Madison Productions, because he has been able to make a variety of films with his friends from his past. The Sandman would have changed the trajectory of his career a lot earlier than Grown Ups 2 if he truly desired any respect from his peers in the Academy.
Death of the Author Sandler: Let us Talk About the Film
If the first installment in the Grown Ups saga is about friends bonding over memories and reuniting, Grown Ups 2 leaves its focus on the families that define us. Regardless of the economic classes that each of the titular grown-ups comes from, there is still the basic human need for connection and human interaction. We may make fun of the ones closest to us. We may pick some fights or try ever so much to avoid our loved ones (like Kurt Mackenzie with his mother-in-law). Despite all the hi-jinx and troubles that we face (for example, Brayden getting arrested), our family will always be there for us. Even though sometimes, to quote the buff yoga student, those connections might trip us up.
I see the cliff, named Suicide Thirty-Five, and the jump scene as a metaphor for the whole film. First, a summary: in the scene, Lenny (Adam Sandler) and his three friends are engaging in a nostalgic journey up the top of a cliff in a quarry they frequented in their youth. This is when they are met by the pseudo antagonists of the film, the fraternity brothers. Taylor Lautner, the head frat boy, forces the gang, including first-time jumper Eric Lamonsoff (Kevin James), to jump down the cliff naked. This scene conveys the structures of reminiscence, going back to the places that made you happy when you were young. Dealing with the regrets you have and the troubles you didn’t face because of fear. It is for these reasons that Lenny moves back home in the first place and why he eventually learns to stand up to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The fraternity brothers stand in for the movement of time and the generations that surpass us. In the film, Lenny and his gang and the frat boys argue over the ownership of the quarry. The scene is a microcosm of the central conflict: the world is moving on without Lenny. There will always be another, a younger group who will have their own experiences and will treat life how they want to, without paying respect to what came before them. It is a fact of life that we are born into this world alone and that we will die alone. So, while growing up (or jumping off a thirty-five-foot cliff) is a terrifying event, painful even, there is still a beauty in the idea that growing up is something that people do not have to do alone.
Burpsnart is the apex of the type of comedic ingenuity audiences have come to associate with Happy Madison Productions. Firstly, burpsnarting is the act of burping, sneezing, and farting in a succession of each other in one rapid go. This is something Erik Lamonsoff has mastered. Burpsnarting is the apex of the style of humor viewers associate with Sandler movies because it’s immature, half-baked, and childlike potty humor. A fart joke is a tired gag. An easy laugh that is so juvenile that it can annoy an audience so much as to put them off of a movie as a whole. Sandler, seeing himself connected to that perception of his films, decides to create the amalgamation of all those stupid bodily functions into one epic gag. So, the art of burpsnarting becomes a commentary on Sandler’s self-awareness, and in that sense, it can be seen as beyond depressing or hilarious, rather, it is the Sandman profiting from this stupid humor with full awareness of how idiotic the whole situation is.
There are only two characters in Grown Ups that seem to appreciate their careers. Though the evidence is slim, these two are Oz, the Kmart gun and knife specialist, and the dance instructor. We look into Oz only because he is in the minority of the world around him. He is never seen complaining about his career and, in fact, shows deep interest in his inventory when showcasing it to Higgins (David Spade). Oz also has brain damage and various mental handicaps, a result of his mom performing a daring thirty-five-foot jump into a quarry while she was pregnant with him. One of the only characters doing their job correctly without complaint is someone with brain damage. The implications are self-apparent. The other competent character is more interesting, as she becomes a stand-in for Sandler himself and shines a light on Sandler’s creation process. I am, of course, talking about the dance instructor. The dance instructor never expresses a single negative feeling towards her job. In fact, she seems very happy to interact with her students and their parents. This is interesting to note because the audience should look at her as an echo of Sandler himself, a fellow performer. Throughout the dance scene, it is clear that this production is exactly what you would expect (much like the average Happy Madison production), nothing more than a boring ballet show at a school. However, out of nowhere, in the midst of this same-old same-old show, the instructor appears front and center, taking the focus away from the production and art itself and putting it on her.
The foundations of Sandler’s work are dull and forgettable, hardly separable from the average crappy comedies that are churned out by studios en masse. However, when Sandler puts his name on one of these productions (steps onto the stage), all of a sudden people care about the crap. More people talk about Sandler films than comparable trash like Good Boys or The Long Shot because we associate it with the magnetic appeal of the Sandman himself, much like the dance instructor. Like the characters witnessing the show, the audience of Sandler’s films do not care about the artistic merit of the entertainment. They care about the artist, the instructor. Now, we could infer many things from this metaphor; is Sandler saying he’s a narcissist? Well, from the instructor’s character alone, I would say no. The instructor doesn’t take the spotlight in her own life.
For example, she is willing to hold Steve Austin’s jacket and watch from afar in the final act of the movie, passively spectating. She doesn’t even make her appearance at the party apparent until she is found by the host. None of her actions outside of the ballet scene would suggest that she desires attention. What can we infer? Perhaps it’s the possibility that Sandler knows his work is only successful because he’s attached as the lead. The ballet performance opens with boring basics, the show isn’t lively until the instructor takes center stage. Maybe Sandler is showcasing his fears. He knows his work can only go so far, that the only thing making his films watchable is his sheer, animal likability.
As I sit at my writing desk, I start to think about where I was when this film debuted: a thirteen-year-old boy on summer break, enjoying the reunion of friends and family. I start to think about who I am now. The glory days are fading faster than one can understand, as friends and family members move and grow apart. Now, I am a college student entering my last year of school. I feel the monotony of adulthood approaching. It won't be long before I, myself, become Lenny Fader, Erik Lamonsoff, Kurt Makenzie, or Higgins, an actual grown-up. The creeping subtext of this film has become an inescapable fact in my own existence: life moves fast, like a tire rolling down a hill at vomit-inducing speeds. There are only so many summer jobs at ice cream shops, awkward first dates, or wild driving tests that one can experience. I’ve been forced to ask myself one question over and over while writing this review: are my first days of summer over? Will I ever get to experience the joyous freedom of adolescence again? Or will I be met with the harsh realities of life? As Dennis Dugan’s Grown Ups 2 draws to a close and we leave Lenny and the Fader household behind, I welcome my new life that is to come, that monotonous adult life, comforted by the fact that we can live every moment and love every day.