Blended Review: So-So’s Africa
I’ve called Adam Sandler a twisted genius before, but the greatest trick he ever pulled may very well be Blended, a merely bad comedy that – after the sadistic assaults Jack & Jill, That’s My Boy and Grown Ups 2 – can technically be called his best live-action movie in years. But it would be even more accurate to declare that it’s merely his least evil. Unless you count lowering audience standards over a solid decade so that this innocuous, and mostly humorless waste of time looks pretty good by comparison. That’s outright villainous too, if you think about it.
But by itself, Blended is mostly harmless. Gone is the incessant, cruel bullying of Sandler’s recent output, and in its place is only some occasional (and mostly perplexing) bullying instead. Filling out the rest of Blended’s completely unnecessary two-hour running time are halfway wholesome messages about building new families on the ashes of divorce and cancer, the not-so delicate balance of masculine and feminine influence on young children, and reducing the country of South Africa to an arbitrarily exotic backdrop populated by lazy, comic relief locals and a wandering minstrel show led by an admittedly energetic Terry Crews.
Single parents Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) have one awful first date and decide that they want nothing to do with each other, but after a series of fantastically contrived circumstances they end up sharing an all-expense paid South African vacation just a few days later, with their rascal kids in tow. Jim has three daughters: Hilary (Bella Thorne), Espn* (Emma Fuhrmann) and Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind). Lauren has two sons: Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein). At first they all hate each other but over a series of comic misadventures blah-blah-blah, yackity-smackity.
For whatever reason Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore are a natural romantic duo, good-natured and convincingly loving, so setting them at odds for the majority of Blended feels wrong, like a brother and sister acting out the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet. They trade barbs but none of their witticisms are particularly witty, and come across less like near-strangers who respond unfavorably to each other’s differences and more like an embittered old married couple trying to push each other’s buttons. They end up together for no other reason than because they should never have been apart in the first place, which provides roughly the same amount of satisfaction as finally ripping out an ingrown toenail.
And although Blended strives to celebrate alternative family units – the hotel turns out to be hosting a series of activities designed to bring step-parents closer to their new children – it concludes with the same old conservative message: that kids need two parents, one definitively feminine and the other undeniably macho. Jim teaches Lauren’s sons about maturity through reckless endangerment and sports, and Lauren merely fills the shoes of Jim’s recently deceased wife by tucking his daughters in at night and giving them makeovers.
Jim isn’t a particularly bad parent: his children are tomboys, some by nature and others by accidental design, but their problems take outside forms like being confused for a boy (even though actress Bella Thorne is clearly a lovely young woman, no matter what haircut they give her) or embracing odd coping mechanisms in response to their mother’s death. Lauren doesn’t seem to be a terrible parent but her children nevertheless behave like raving, Oedipal lunatics just because she tries to fill their lives with structure. It’s typical for modern age Adam Sandler pictures to take the man’s side at all times, but if nothing else, Blended doesn’t make fun of its female characters for wanting to embrace their femininity as well. Unfortunately it makes fun of them for the opposite, which is at least arguably just as cruel.
But Blended doesn’t linger on its ugliness and one-sided moralizing very long, and doesn't wallow in hatred the way we are sadly used to. Mostly it gets by on a series of contrived, theoretically amusing comic set pieces and one-off Africa gags like rhinos mating in the background for no reason. The South African setting is meaningless, merely an excuse to force Jim and Lauren to spend time together and participate various activities like ostrich riding and ATV chases. The wondrous exotic locale amounts to nothing more than a strange assurance that a foreign land can be just as generically gormless and blanched as the stereotypical Club Med.
Which may be fitting, since Blended amounts to nothing more than an equally strange, meaningless assurance that Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore will always find each other, and that children are destined to turn out wrong unless they’re raised by both a mother and a father. That point may be insipid and outdated, but after several films that celebrate outright abuse, it does come across like a microscopic step in the right direction, if only for an Adam Sandler film. Not that being “good for an Adam Sandler film” is much cause for celebration, of course.