Grown Ups is one of those movies where you show up and maybe laugh a few times and squirm a few times, and then it’s over. In a few days, you’ll have no recollection of it. That’s because the storyline is so bland, and the characters such broad caricatures, it manages to be totally unmemorable. For a film about 30-year-old friendships, that’s a fatal flaw.
The introductory credits match up the team of actors (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider) with their childhood selves playing in a basketball championship. We then fast-forward to 30 years later, as each of the friends finds out their basketball coach has passed away. This is a screenwriter’s challenge: Establish characters in just a few short lines. Unfortunately, Sandler opens his scene in a ritzy house by shouting into his cell-phone, “I’m a big-time Hollywood agent.” He might as well show up in scrubs announcing he’s a surgeon. Grown Ups, it seems, is not interested in creative exposition, or in giving subtle clues to its audience. On the plus side, the physical comedy in the next scene is better: James breaking an above-ground pool is surprising and perhaps the best sight gag in the movie.
The five friends and their spouses and children gather at a lake house after the coach’s funeral for a weekend of relaxation and reminiscing. Here, there seems to be a chance to create comedy out of specific yet universal experiences. That “universal” ends up being arrow roulette, the friends’ childhood game. To play, someone shoots an arrow shot into the air and everyone runs for their lives. However, the game ends in an impaling—not once, but two separate times. Are we supposed to believe the kids actually played the game and are still in one piece today?
The comedy follows a rather loose structure, with dozens of mini plot points that are introduced and resolved with a few jokes thrown in. The kids learn how to survive without cell-phones. A daughter nurses a bird back to health. The men ogle at Schneider’s attractive daughters. (Wait, is that a plot point?) As for the men themselves, their characters rarely extend beyond their three-word summaries. Schneider’s a cougar-lover. Sandler is wealthy but worried about his spoiled kids, who text the nanny for their every need. James is pretending to be better off than he is. Spade hasn’t grown up yet. In the most inspired casting of the bunch, Rock plays against type. As a househusband, he recites lines about cleaning, cooking and affection usually given to women, but without emasculating himself.
Watching Grown Ups made me long for movies of my childhood that actually did show groups of friends with undying bonds—Now and Then or The Sandlot. Instead, this movie has sold out unabashedly. For an unknown reason, the quintet eats a bucket of KFC chicken while they spread the ashes of their coach, which manages to combine poor taste with corporate product placement. Even worse, it’s followed by a continuity error, with Sandler holding KFC in one shot and a bottle of Dasani water in the next.
Grown Ups is unable to create a convincing history for its characters, which could have enriched the humor and added a touch of sentimentality instead of going for pure dumb-funny. Instead, the movie leaves you with hollow confessions, fart jokes, and the feeling that a comedy with this many funny people should have been, well, funnier.