[box cover]

Big Daddy

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Starring Adam Sandler, Joey Lauren Adams,
and Cole and Dylan Sprouse

Written by Steve Franks, Tim Herlihy, and Adam Sandler
Directed by Dennis Dugan

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Few comic actors have the required range to make a smooth, effective transition from comedy to drama. In his first film since breaking into superstardom with the largely uninspired The Waterboy, comic Adam Sandler finds himself teetering dangerously close to the precipice of seriousness that has swallowed many a wayward comedian.

The good news about Big Daddy is that, for a good portion, Sandler returns to the wild, random, boisterous absurdity that paid off in big laughs with Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. In fact, his most recent film features several scenes which rank amongst the sub-moronic man-child's funniest — but it also veers into awkward territory for a talent best utilized screaming and beating up children. Big Daddy matches its scenes of hilarity with a deadly precious sentimentality. There are shots — yes, tight close-ups — of Sandler crying. No irony, no winking send-up of cinematic sap, just the sap itself, pure and gut-turning.

Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a lazy drop-out law student content to work one day a week at a toll booth while living off the spoils of a frivolous lawsuit. Sonny's lethargy does not bode well for his relationship with Vanessa (Kristi Swanson), who wants a man with a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. Desperate to show Vanessa that he can be mature, Sonny seizes what his warped mind considers a golden opportunity.

Shortly after his roommate Kevin (Jon Stewart) leaves for China on business, Sonny is saddled with Julian (played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse), the five-year-old side-effect of Kevin's one night stand. At first, Sonny approaches the boy uneasily, but balks at handing him over to Social Services. Convinced that parenting can mold him into the responsible adult Vanessa desires, he pretends to be Kevin and takes custody.

Vanessa dumps him anyway, leaving him stranded as a single parent, and much of what follows is a very funny (if bathroom-oriented) indictment of alternative parenting. Sonny — whose own father is overbearing — decides that he'll be Julian's friend, and that the child can make his own decisions. As the formula demands, this approach is fun for the child (and the audience), but encourages neither discipline nor hygiene. Then Sonny and Julian work together to form the sort of creative, caring parent-child relationship we only wish was possible.

As it sounds, Big Daddy is, unfortunately, a learning movie. The precious opening credits serve as a brooding omen for what's in store, and despite some big laughs during the middle half-hour, it's in the final act that everything goes horribly wrong — in both plot and style. Sonny is exposed for defrauding Social Services and Julian is taken away. Sonny must then assemble a legal team capable of not only clearing himself of fraud charges, but also gaining him custody of the boy. This court room scene exposes the film's paradox perfectly. It's one of the funniest prolonged set pieces Sandler has been a part of, bristling with one-liners and hilarious non-sequiturs. It also, however, contains long, sincere, teary-eyed speeches — by Sandler of all people — about love and responsibility, including a tearful reunion between Sonny and his own father. It's an uneasy, conflicted combination, and not successful, especially in the hands of a pedestrian director like Dennis Dugan. Hopefully someone close to Sandler will remind this gifted funnyman to stick to laughs in the future.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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