by Matt Levine
The kind of movie rescued by the low expectations it engenders, Blended is doubtlessly bad—lazily written, sloppily shot, at times irredeemably stupid, and often painfully unfunny—but it’s not the abysmal travesty it could have been (and which the trailers suggested). When one hears the ten-second pitch, “It’s a Sandler-Barrymore rom-com in Africa!,” anyone smarter than a Hollywood producer knows that sounds almost surreally idiotic. So…why does Blended seem tolerable, at times even charming? Granted, its occasionally sweet moments are far overwhelmed by jokes about mating rhinoceroses and conspicuously jiggling breasts, but after the trail of destruction Sandler has left in his wake recently—from That’s My Boy to Jack and Jill to Grown-Ups 2--Blended’s mere competency seems like a vast improvement.
Director: Frank Coraci
Producers: Jack Giarraputo, Mike Karz, Adam Sandler
Writers: Ivan Menchell, Clare Sera
Cinematographer: Julio Macat
Editor: Tom Costain
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Nealon, Terry Crews, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Emma Fuhrmann, Bella Thorne, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Joel McHale, Abdoulaye N’Gom, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Jessica Lowe, Braxton Beckham, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Patrick
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
It doesn’t seem that way at first, though, as Blended begins with a scene that sets the bar impossibly low. Jim Friedman (Sandler) and Lauren Reynolds (Barrymore) embark on a disastrous first date concocted by screenwriters who have no idea how real humans behave: set at Hooter’s (of course) and replete with servers named Bubbles and flying French Onion soup, it might inspire more sensible viewers to begin sprinting for the exits. When you begin with such awfulness, though, there’s nowhere to go but up, and there are some believable moments as we come to know the two characters and their families. He’s a widower whose wife has recently died of cancer, with three tomboyish daughters; she’s recently divorced and tasked with raising two hellish sons, especially since her jackass ex-husband, Mark (Joel McHale), refuses to contribute to their upbringing. (McHale’s presence is usually welcome, but the film refuses to let him have an actual personality—he’s just a cardboard villain.)
Through a proliferation of coincidences almost surreal in their illogic, both Sandler’s and Barrymore’s families end up hopping a jet for a reduced-price vacation in Sun City, South Africa—where the film was actually shot (though the scenes set at the families’ garish resort more closely resemble a Vegas casino). The lush scenery of South Africa, seldom though it appears, is one of the film’s unexpected pleasures, as are the performances of Sandler and Barrymore. She’s often charming even when she appears in nauseating dreck like 50 First Dates (2004), but Sandler’s fleeting charisma is a complete surprise; for a guy who’s made a career out of perfecting the boorish, loudmouthed Everyman, Blended finds him in thankfully subdued form.
Will Jim teach Lauren’s sons to build their self-confidence without the support of their dad? Will she teach Jim’s daughters to embrace their femininity and love themselves (a task she achieves by bringing the eldest, Hilary, to a beauty salon for a makeover)? Will the two single parents realize through their mutual disdain that they belong together? If you don’t know these answers, you will be entranced by Blended and should see it immediately.
As for the movie’s portrayal of its African characters…well, the movie will never win any NAACP Image Awards, but at least it avoids becoming the jaw-dropping minstrel show the trailers seemed to promise. There’s a kindly hotel manager named Mfana (Abdoulaye N’Gom) who mistakenly believes Jim and Lauren are already married; a fiery showman named Nickens (Terry Crews), half-James Brown and half-Jar Jar Binks, perpetually surrounded by a band named Thathu and popping up out of nowhere at the most inopportune times; and a large group of nameless South African hotel workers who are there to smile, dance, and serve the main characters. At times the jokes are cringe-inducing, as with a toothless African security man perpetually asleep on the job—a gimmick which comes dangerously close to the old lazy coon stereotype. And it’s never less than irritating that the black characters are only there to progress the plot and cater to the white Americans and their nuclear-family crises. At the same time, there are some clever reversals of the xenophobic humor we might expected to see: instead of anyone mispronouncing Mfana’s name, it’s always Mfana who mistakes Jim’s (a joke for his own amusement, he later reveals); and when Lauren’s Jew-fro sporting son Brendan (Braxton Beckham) speaks with the Sun City natives in an offensive exaggeration of hip-hop slang, three South Africans respond (in their native tongue) “Why is Frodo grabbing himself?” Hardly the epitome of wit, but at least such jokes avoid the kind of noxious cultural lampoon of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008).
Blended generates about five to ten laughs in its entire running time—not an impressive ratio, but I am honestly astounded by even this meager accomplishment. Terry Crews’ seemingly psychotic bandleader is a solid running gag, and an all-monkey jazz band near the end of the film bolsters my opinion, in defiance of any pretensions to comedic sophistication, that monkeys doing human things is unfailingly amusing. The laughs abruptly cease by the time the American characters return home for an unnecessarily long third act, leading finally to a climax so head-smackingly obvious it’s impossible to believe two screenwriters are credited for it (or maybe they’re just the aliases for Warner Bros.’ screenplay-writing robots). But even if the laziness and crudity of the film’s ending are as dispiriting as in the rest of the film, the undeniable (and almost inexplicable) chemistry between Sandler and Barrymore makes them a bit more palatable—as they smirk at each other shyly, you wonder what could happen if they were reunited for a movie at the service of talented writers and directors. The fact that Blended is in the gray area between awfulness and mediocrity made this review a bit less gratifying to write: I was primed and ready to unleash a torrent of vitriol all over this ridiculous concoction. Instead, I can only grudgingly admit that it’s a passable Adam Sandler vehicle. If the world is going to keep paying to see his movies, at least with Blended, he’s advanced to the stage where he can no longer be accused of crimes against humanity.