Director: Adam Shankman / Screenplay: Tim Herlihy (from story by Matt Lopez) / Editing: Tom Costain & Michael Tronick / DP: Michael Barrett / Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cast: Adam Sandler / Keri Russell / Guy Pearce / Russell Brand / Richard Griffiths / Teresa Palmer / Lucy Lawless / Courteney Cox / Jonathan Morgan Heit / Laura Ann Kesling / Jonathan Pryce / Kathryn Joosten / Rob Schneider / Aisha Tyler
With the notable exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2003) and the more recent (and very good) Meyerowitz Stories for Noah Baumbach (2017), Adam Sandler has been content to be Middle-America’s go-to funnyman for the best part of the last three decades; the defining role of a lifetime, from which he’s barely deviated.
Okay, maybe not ‘Middle-America’ per-se, but Sandler’s audience has remained resolutely conservative with a small ‘c’. He generally prefers writing & producing his own material these days, through his Happy Madison production company: and why not? It’s a formula that obviously works-out more often than it doesn’t.
In keeping with this ‘hands-on’ attitude, his directors tend to be compliant journeymen, content to pocket the cheque and doze their way through such lame vehicles as Click (2006), Grown Ups (2010) and Jack and Jill (2011), to name just three of the least critically-acclaimed. Watching any of these, will put you into a trance-state, only broken when the Steward’s prodding you awake with the in-flight meal…
If the paucity of the material chosen, lays at the heart of Sandler’s critical drubbing, then it begs the obvious question: why can’t you have both creative integrity AND commercial success? After all, he’s choosing to make these dumb movies yet is clearly no fool himself. Therefore, is this the level he believes his blindly-loyal fanbase deserves?
That the man can act is undeniable. Watch him in either of the two films recommended in this review’s opening, to see that for yourself. But they’re exceptional, in that both make use of Sandler-the-actor and nothing more. With those out of the equation, his filmography reads like a series of bland, high-concept fillings for a white-bread sandwich: all big ideas and no roughage.
Which brings us to Bedtime Stories: a co-production between Sandler & Disney and notable as Sandler’s first movie tailored to a young audience [insert joke here]. From an original idea by Matt Lopez, ‘Stories emergent script was knocked-about by regular Sandler co-writer Tim Herlihy (who knows what the Boss likes) and sold with the innocuous tagline: ‘What if the stories you told, magically came to life?’
You can almost picture yourself in the lift, when this was pitched, can’t you?
It begins sprightly enough in 1974, with innocuously-cast Jonathan Pryce giving his best Mid-Atlantic drawl as Marty Bronson, an ‘improbably late’ father to Skeeter & Wendy. There’s no mention of a mother anywhere in their lives… As if things weren’t bad enough in the dark days of ‘74, Marty’s thrown the kids and everything else he’s got, into a motel he’s opened in Hollywood. You’d think that everything would be coming-up-roses, what with the kids being so helpful about the place and its prime location, but no. For the oyster to produce its pearl, it must first take onboard a little grit; here, in the form of a hotelier, who wants to buy-up Marty’s ‘failing’ business and plonk a ruddy hotel in its place. Marty has no choice. His story is over. He’s a failure, then, but he DOES extract a promise from the developer, to one day have Skeeter run the place: anything to get a signature on the bill of sale, right?
So far, so Tim Burton, in the reality-blurring-with-magic on-screen; the two kids appearing to forgo school, in favour of manning the reception desk or portering heavy cases. The film’s palette is Burtonesque too, but carrying an overtly sentimental, near-mawkish tone in its manipulation of our emotions.
So, it’s with sadness tinged with optimism that Marty’s beloved ‘Sunny Vista’ motel (surely a pun on Disney’s own ‘BuenaVista’ label) gives ground to the ‘Sunny Vista Nottingham’; named after its eponymous developer Barry Nottingham, rather than the English city renowned for its fabled, err, Vistas… With the film now some ‘twenty-five’ years-on from the prologue, Nottingham is played by the inimitable Richard Griffiths, as a snowy-haired popinjay, saddled with a rampant case of Mysophobia; did anyone mention Howard Hughes?
Skeeter’s still there, too – though if he’s managing anything, it’s the store-cupboard’s supply of lightbulbs, in his capacity as handyman… For all that he’s been overlooked in the cut and thrust of promotion, he’s retained a good heart. Look: here’s Kathryn Joosten as a befuddled guest, who’s blaming a Leprechaun for drinking her mini-bar… So sweet. And who’s stepping-in, to have it deducted from his own wages? In these opening moments, Sandler’s playing Skeeter with the resigned air of someone used to smoothing-over the cracks to avoid confrontation, which goes some way to explain why he’s entrusted only with the lightbulbs.
There’s more. Nottingham’s giving a speech in one of the conference rooms, to
outline tease his next big hotel project, at the end of which, he nominates the film’s true villain – Kendal Duncan – as its intended manager. That’ll be Guy Pearce in a gloriously camp interpretation, that reminds me of his Priscilla-phase and it’s to his credit and that of Director Shankman, that he’s being encouraged to ham-up the film’s pantomime spirit.
After work, Skeeter visits ‘sister Wendy’ (inert, expressionless Courteney Cox who, let’s be honest, isn’t doing this tosh for the money) and her two kids, Bobbi & Patrick. She appears to have it all: a nice bungalow in the ‘burbs. Job as a school principal. Two adorable kids and, yep: just like their old man, she’s a single parent with no sign of a significant other about the place; just bursts of treading-on-eggshell dialogue about life ‘post-divorce’. Turns-out, you can’t have it all, apparently; least not in the ‘real world’. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s daughter Bobbi’s birthday and for a cake, her uptight mother has made ‘gluten-free wheatgrass cake’ (‘Trust me. You just gotta get past the smell’).
It turns-out that the scriptwriters have a thing for separation, shown when Skeeter’s met at the door by a rent-a-mob of kids from Disney’s Central Casting, who swiftly divest our schlubby hero of his bag of cookies. This provides a distraction allowing Skeeter to meet the sister and kids in-peace; the mob, suddenly absent. It all feels perfunctory; such elements doing little more than ticking a few boxes without ever gelling. Plus, it gives room for STORY to happen: Wendy’s school is closing-down and she’s being interviewed for jobs in Arizona… Why? Are there no other teaching jobs in L.A. to which she could apply? Ugh.
Oh, but wait: Arizona at least gets her out of the City – and the film – and gifts the job of babysitter to her reliable slob of a brother. But it’s okay: she has a friend and colleague, Jill, who’ll look after the kids in the day, so Skeeter only has to handle the nights. Still with me? If it sounds desperate on-paper, try watching the thing; elements are taking what feels like geological time to come together…
The film’s strained ‘Meet-Cute’ comes as Skeeter’s leaving. He’s double-parked. She’s carrying an improbably-oversized gift-wrapped box: what are the odds that this’ll be Jill, as played by Keri Russell; an actress I first saw in the impressive Waitress (2007), but in nothing since with the same impact. After she bawls-out Skeeter’s apparent indifference, the culprit retorts ‘Haven’t you heard? Goofy’s the new handsome!’ at which point, to diffuse tension, Skeeter holds-out another bag of yet more sugary treats. Why? Because the gaggle of kids last seen chowing-down inside the house, now run into-frame From Nowhere, grab the bag and run-off again; if this is how Disney are paying their day-players now, it’s little wonder they’re so hungry!
Next, a gratuitous scene between Skeeter and Russell Brand’s Mickey who, at this point in his brief Hollywood adventure, must’ve been thinking he really could have it all. Mickey’s written as a room-service waiter, though as things evolve, he morphs into more of an infantilised accomplice. Skeeter’s confiding to Mickey, that he’s nervous about babysitting, to which Mickey replies: ‘Sometimes I baby-sit my cousins and let them style my hair. Put beads into it and braid it and made me look all sexy like Milli Vanilli.’ Even writing that, doesn’t lessen its creepiness…
Skeeter arrives at the house and after a brusque exchange with Jill, in which he learns there’s no TV, he opts to tell a ‘Bedtime Story’ to the kids; in this, Skeeter channels something of the magical imagination he enjoyed as a boy, at-play in the Sunny Vista. So, after a false start, he weaves a tale of a medieval Peasant | Knight | Squire called ‘Sir Fix-a-lot’, who fails in the King’s search for a new champion, when his rival – ‘Sir Butt-kiss’ – is chosen. As his VO outlines the story (that’s so barebones as to hardly warrant the tag) we see Pearce and Griffiths in period costume; both men startled to be in a film with a budget that made such ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ extravagance even possible. Skeeter, by contrast, looks bored out of his mind, even though he’s in a make-believe world of his own imagination.
If we’re not fooled by Skeeter’s now-threadbare imagination, then neither are the kids, who demand a better ending (and they’re not the only ones). Piqued at their reaction, Skeeter gives us this: ‘So, Sir Fix-a-lot moved into a giant shoe, got a bad case of Athlete’s Face, and dove into a moat and got eaten by crocodiles. The end.’
To be fair, at this stage, our hero’s imaginative talents are lacking in-direction; something that the writers are about to remedy, with another graunching shift in gears. Skeeter’s called to Nottingham’s gloomy lair ‘to fix a TV’, but it’s actually a lame reason to get him alone with the boss. A secret’s revealed: Duncan’s innovative theme for the new hotel is ‘Rock and Roll’, to which Skeeter replies ‘Like the Hard Rock? They’ve been going for years.’ This prompts Nottingham to issue a challenge, that both men should submit new proposals at the end of the week… Sorry?
First of all, just how has Nottingham managed to amass an empire of ‘twenty-three’ hotels ‘World-Wide’ without being aware of the ‘Hard Rock’ chain? The fact that Skeeter’s mentioning it, means that the film is taking place in this universe and not one outside reality, so what gives? It’s yet another lazy compromise, in a script that’s fast becoming staler than any idea this fresh has any right to be…
So, the week plods along. Skeeter chases Violet – the boss’s daughter – because that’s where he falsely believes his destiny lays. Of course, we know his destiny looks like Keri Russell, but the script will make us wait until the last reel. To get us there, Skeeter has more stories to tell and, as they begin to ‘come true’ with each passing day, he realises that it’s the additional ideas from the kids, that are making the difference. Yet he’s still focussed on aimless wish-fulfilment without grounding or purpose.
Take the second story as an example. Whilst out in his venerable old pick-up, Skeeter loses a drag-race against a ‘Ferrari’ supercar, which leads him into a Wild West fantasy about trading-in his ‘ole hoss, for a cherry-red ‘Prancing Horse’ called Ferrari... As a result, when the kids are asleep, he stands before the window of his nearby dealership and ogles the cars within, in the groundless belief he’s going to be gifted one ‘for freeee’ as-per his story. Along comes Rob Schneider, fresh from an earlier cameo, who promptly mugs him. That should’ve been enough for Skeeter to see the futility in his misguided dream, but no: whilst driving back to the hotel (minus-wallet), he sees Violet being hassled by a mob of paparazzi, at which point I realised actress Teresa Palmer even looks like then-contemporary Paris Hilton; the ultimate It-Girl of 2008… Only after ‘rescuing’ her as-per the story, does he see her Ferrari and assumes that she’ll now give it to him as a reward. Violet, naturally, drives-off, confused at this employee’s sudden interest in her (and, more importantly, her sports-car).
I’ll spare you the details of how Skeeter’s third story shoehorns-in a mash-up of Ben Hur & Spartacus to little effect. Even when he ‘imagines’ himself as a charioteer in the spirit of Evel Knievel and successfully jumps a row of elephants, the film’s heart refuses to pump.
In another dig, both at the unreality of Skeeter’s situation (as much as audience credibility), we learn that he actually lives in a bungalow in the hotel grounds (think Chateau Marmont). He can’t see that he’s already living what, for the vast majority, would be a dreamlike existence. Take the beautifully-photographed tracking shot as he leads Jill & the kids up to a secluded rooftop terrace, where a flaming brazier awaits the toasting of marshmallows: this guy might just be the handyman, but I’m beginning to think it’s a fig-leaf for something bleaker. Still, at least it provides Jill with her first glimpse of Skeeter’s fun side; this, in answer to a question from the kids, about whether their dad will ever return: ‘I’m like the stink on your feet. I’ll always be around’: looking at Russell here, I can’t decide if her extended stare comes from genuine repulsion, or that she’s just felt a tickle in her ovaries…
Last of all, we must endure a pastiche of Star Wars (ironic, given Disney’s later acquisition of LucasFilm), in which Skeeter does battle with his arch-nemesis in a Zero-G arena modelled on the Death Star, watched by ‘Supreme Leader Barakto’; Griffiths as a bewildered Ming-the-Merciless cosplayer. Skeeter wins-out here, but the next day sees his tongue receive a bee-sting (!) which leaves him incapable of making his pitch to Nottingham. If things weren’t bad enough, Fate chooses a grass-skirted, coconut-bra-wearing Mickey as translator of his ensuing mumbles. I’m sure it went down a bomb on the day, but this elongated scene stinks like an overripe Brie.
Yes, Skeeter wins a second-time (was there any doubt?) but any sense of deserved triumph is short-lived, as the writers find his sudden elevation incompatible with winning Jill’s heart the same week. So, they concoct an abrupt fall-from-grace and an alternative destiny revealed in the Coda: it seems Skeeter is doomed to replicate the mistakes of the father, after all: but that’s okay, as long as we send baffled audiences out with Boston’s Don’t Stop Believin’…
Believing, yes: but in what, precisely? The film hasn’t done much to narrow that one down. We’ve had a naïve belief that the universe will grant us a Ferrari, gratis, thus ushering-in the concept of ‘Universal Ordering’… Or, that a working life as a handyman, will pay-off against a suave, urbane professional with a solid career in hotel management?
Not much to go on, is there? At which point, I should remind myself that this is a Disney fantasy. An excuse in guilt-free, wish-fulfilment. Surprisingly, it’s not about the kids at all; they’re mere catalysts through-whom Skeeter can tell his tall tales and thus see the light. Yet even outside the realm of the fantastical, the changes conjured in ‘reality’ are equally unbelievable. Mickey ending-up with Violet is not so much of a stretch, I’ll grant you, but to then be described as one of the ‘World’s Richest Men’ is an insult, given his entitlement stems from marrying an heiress WHO ISN’T EVEN MENTIONED! Worst of all, is having Duncan employed in a lowly role by Skeeter in his new venture beyond the hotel. Nope. Don’t think so. Nada.
Fantasy or not, this is a stretch too far.
The film’s gender politics are all over the shop, too. In order to smother any lingering sense of masculinity, the script emasculates every male character with debilitating traits: Skeeter’s an embittered, self-pitying loser. Nottingham’s vain and out-of-touch as a result of his Hughsian seclusion. Duncan’s a scheming, grasping cynic and Mickey’s little more than a medicated, empty vessel (when I saw Brand as a Satyr during the Roman section, I thought it perfect casting). There’s not a decent one among them, though the women aren’t much better: Wendy’s got all the charisma of a codfish on a slab and Jill, though offering-up what little heart this film has, is too brusque for too long, to convincingly melt over the course of a day. We’re not fooled, so why is she?
In conclusion then, I’m forced to consider the following question: Why did this turn out so poorly? After all, it’s a novel idea, with some interesting concepts. The kids are suitably cherubic and often charm the adults off-screen. Behind-the-lens talent occasionally shows a depth-of-craft, belying the possibility that at least one person cared.
The answer naturally revolves around its star, but not in the way you might think. In this case, suspicion snags on favoured co-writer Herlihy, writing in-anticipation of Sandler’s style. Had Sandler plumped instead for a proven writer-for-children, I think he might’ve been more challenged by the material and the ensuing need for it to be polished, before committing any of it to film. In the event, Skeeter is as schlubby, unfocussed and grating as practically every other Sandler character, to which I’ll repeat the question posed at the top of this piece: is this the level he believes his fanbase deserves?
Which brings me to the biggest problem that comes with being a bona-fide Movie Star: if you make lazy choices and play only to your base, you end up in a creative straight-jacket, unable to wriggle-free.
Even IF you’re Producing something, you’re still expected to deploy the usual schtick, so as not to alienate viewers already familiar with your work. For all I know, Sandler wanted to play Skeeter with as much earnest conviction as he brought to the other, low-budget dramas in which he shone. But the ADAM SANDLER brand comes with its own baggage, that kicks-in once the budget rises above ‘Arthouse’. From that point, it’s as though the entire enterprise was doomed-to-fail, yet no-one with the power to do so, was either able – or willing – to call-time. My guess, is that the wheels had begun turning, once Disney suits pencilled-in a Xmas release date. With budgets allocated & talent booked, it was probably easier to get the thing made, than find a replacement.
The result is a colossal waste of talent, on both sides of the camera. If you really want to watch a film about manifesting one’s imagination, watch Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006); superior fare in every way, that doesn’t cut to a CGI Guinea Pig every time it flags.
I see London. I see France. I see my Golden Underpants!