Some weekends it’s no fun being a film critic. Watching the ads for last Friday’s two big releases, I abandoned all hope. On one hand, we had Rock of Ages, a dopey-looking love story featuring lots of bad hair and ’80s hits. On the other, a dopey-looking Adam Sandler comedy featuring lots of bad hair and ’80s hits. I flipped a coin and, to my surprise, the weekend didn’t turn out badly at all.
That’s My Boy is crude, ludicrous and juvenile, which is what I expected. It’s also inspired and, in places, almost surreal. There’s a chance Sandler may be pulling a Jerry Lewis right under our noses, if you know what I mean. He’s doing something in movies like this that no other screen comic is doing, and it causes me to wonder whether one day some culture will embrace his vision and declare him a genius. Then I remember Jack and Jill.
In his latest, Sandler plays Donny Berger, a down-and-out party animal with a storied past. Literally. As a student at Somerville (Mass.) Middle School in the ’80s, he wasn’t just hot for his math teacher. He got her pregnant. The pair are discovered multiplying behind the stage curtain during an assembly, and she’s sent to prison while Donny goes on to pen a best-selling memoir (Head in the Class) and sell the rights to his story to the makers of a TV movie.
As the film opens, the good times and the big bucks are behind our hero. In fact, he owes the IRS $43,000, having neglected to pay his taxes (“I thought they just took the money out”) and faces serving serious time if he doesn’t come up with the cash in a matter of days. Donny sells a reality-show producer on the idea of a special showcasing the jailhouse reunion between the tabloid lovers and their long-lost offspring. All he has to do is track down his son and talk him into taking part.
Scarred for life by the experience of being raised by an ill-equipped father barely out of his teens, Donny’s boy (Andy Samberg) left home at 18 and changed his name from Han Solo Berger to Todd Peterson. Now a successful hedge-fund manager about to marry the woman of his dreams (Leighton Meester) at the posh oceanside estate of his boss (Tony Orlando), Samberg’s character is a Xanax-popping bundle of neuroses who never leaves home without a pair of backup underpants.
Teaming the two “Saturday Night Live” alums was a savvy bit of casting. They’re hilarious together. Once the wedding crasher arrives on the scene — Budweiser surgically attached to his hand — the plot is simultaneously pure boilerplate and utterly beside the point. As scripted by David Caspe (TV’s “Happy Endings”) and directed by Sean Anders (Sex Drive), That’s My Boy is less about redemption, bonding or second chances than about the freaky detail and twisted development. The story line’s just something to hang all the weirdness on.
Events unfold in an alternate reality where a lovably uncouth doofus like Donny is not just embraced by his estranged son’s circle of swells but elevated to the position of ringleader. Just when you expect them to turn on Donny, they fall in behind him instead, and the result is a bachelor party that makes The Hangover look like a church social.
There’s no point, really, in trying to describe the movie’s brand of funny business. It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. As for me, I went in prepared for one of the worst films in a mediocre season and laughed harder than I have in ages. Either That’s My Boy is a singular comic creation, or I’ve developed serious psychological issues. I’m fairly sure it’s a wild, warped hoot and a half, however — a father-and-child reunion so ridiculous, it’s kind of sublime.