FRESH POUR: Blended (2014) / Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

BlendedBlended
Dir. Frank Coraci
Warner Bros. Pictures

The last time I tried to brave an Adam Sandler movie, I ended up walking out but a few minutes in; this time, under the auspices of an advanced screening, I felt I needed to give it a fair shot. After all, why shouldn’t I? I’d never actually watched any of the shitty Sandler movies I kept hearing were so shitty (the most recent one I’d really watched was Punch-Drunk Love, which is in no way a Happy Madison production), so I figured I’d sit through all 117 minutes of Blended.

No surprises here, folks: Adam Sandler films are tedious, odious trash, and Blended is no exception.

Blended follows Jim Friedman, the typical schlubby, inexplicably financially secure Adam Sandler character, and the aftermath of his blind date with Lauren (Drew Barrymore), in which they both find themselves piggybacking off a friend’s aborted trip to an ostentatious African resort. Like some sort of bizarro-world Brady Bunch, the two single parents and their respective kids – Sandler has girls, Barrymore has boys – must learn to get along in the midst of all manner of over-the-top hijinks.

To be fair, Blended is a somewhat pleasant departure from the raunchier antics of That’s My Boy and the Grown Ups series; the film doesn’t follow a group of manchildren offending everyone in sight, but instead attempts to tell a somewhat heartwarming story of two single families that learn to ‘blend’ (get it?). However, the biggest problem is that Sander and company forget to replace the raunch with anything else that’s funny; there are nuggets of enthusiasm from the child actors (all of whom are serviceable), but all we are given are lazy gags about African animals having sex, people getting thrown up on, and women shaking their boobs. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the jokes is the tendency to overexplain them – you know, that thing where you know your joke isn’t funny, so the joke suddenly becomes about the joke-maker overexplaining the unfunny joke? Very few people can make it work, and Sandler isn’t one of them.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of objectionable content to go around despite the film’s cuddly veneer. The running subplot involving Sandler’s androgynous-looking daughter Hillary (called “Larry” to add further confusion) is an extremely dated, unfunny gag that’s repeated ad nauseum, to the point where I’m pretty sure it qualifies as transphobia. Furthermore, the trip to Africa deals in the same kind of lazy stereotyping and cultural tourism we’ve seen time and time again – much of the humor is derived from native African characters’ strange accents, garish clothing and inexplicable ability to krump. There’s literally a scene where a bashful-looking Drew Barrymore dances her whitest while honest-to-god ooga-booga African tribal natives act as backup dancers. Terry Crews tries his damndest as a flamboyantly-dressed resort host/African Greek chorus, but even his high-energy antics and enthusiasm can’t lift these scenes from their dreary, club-footed monotone.

Perhaps the most objectionable part is Adam Sandler’s attempts to lazily rehabilitate the fat, piggish conservative slob character he’s played for nearly his entire career. Jim’s backstory is that his wife died of cancer, so naturally we get scene after scene of him talking about how perfect his wife was, how much he and his kids loved their mom, how he took his blind date to Hooters because his wife actually used to run that Hooters before she died, and so on. All of this is meant to excuse him acting like a prick, but it merely comes off as cynical and tone-deaf, as ball jokes are followed by wistful piano playing in the soundtrack as a kid asks if Drew Barrymore is going to be their new mommy. The film tries to complicate their romance with contrived senses of timing and obligation, but these barriers feel extremely artificial, so you just run out the clock waiting for everything – nay, anything – to happen.

The film’s 117 running time is, frankly, inexcusable; Sandler films barely justify a 90-minute runtime, and this film pads out those two hours with repetitious scenes of the kids learning to trust each other, friends dishing to friends, jokes about Larry’s gender, animals doing goofy things, and many more eye-rolling, armrest-clutching moments of cinematic frustration. All of this contributes to a film that feels, just as much as Sandler’s other films, like Warner Brothers paid him to go on a vacation as long as he promised to shit out a movie while he was there. The movie looks just as low-effort as well; the flat TV lighting and workmanlike composition of the film is almost blindingly ugly, the camera’s single challenge being to make Sandler look as thin as possible.

All in all, despite attempting to recapture some of the magic from Sandler and Barrymore’s first success, The Wedding Singer, Blended just comes across as bloated as Sandler is now. It’s a Chuck Lorre sitcom without the laugh track, an episode of Modern Family without the earnest sentiment that show can elicit, and it’s the whitest movie I’ve ever seen that takes place in Africa. Terry Crews, get out of this movie – you deserve so much better than this.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It!

Blended Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever you see product placement of any kind
2) Drink any time Terry Crews shows up with his African Greek chorus to inject some energy into the proceedings
3) Drink every time Adam Sandler starts a schmaltzy conversation about his dead wife
Finish Your Drink When:
You hear the line, “WHAT DID AFRICA DO TO YOU?!?!”

Million Dollar ArmMillion Dollar Arm
Dir. Craig Gillespie
Walt Disney Pictures

Inspirational sports movies – particularly ones based on a true story – always tend to play it safe; the only time they swing for the fences (pun very much intended) is when they’re going for Oscar gold, like Moneyball. However, Disney is not one of those companies, and so Million Dollar Arm’s simple charm comes from being just a straightforwardly pleasant sports movie that doesn’t really surprise of thrill you. Written by Tom McCarthy (who wrote and directed the equally-pleasant but more sophisticatedly charming The Station Agent) teams up with director Craig Gillespie (of Lars and the Real Girl) to tell the true story of JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a beleaguered sports agent who makes a gambit that he can scout India, a country obsessed with cricket, for trainable and talented young baseball players he can sign with his agency. Finding two young hopefuls in Dinesh (Danhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi), he takes them back to America to start the long and chancy prospect of turning them into baseball stars.

Right away, the film informs us that it will be about the economics of sports – the opening shots pan over sports bobbleheads, the ultimate symbol of celebrities becoming commodities. JB’s worries are all economic, as he must sign players to succeed; his ultimate inspiration comes in flipping channels between Susan Boyle’s famous rendition of I Dreamed a Dream and an Indian cricket game, turning the search or baseball players into a reality TV contest called Million Dollar Arm. With this approach, the film refreshingly takes the focus off the mechanics of the game – not a single game of real baseball is played in the film – and turns it into a debate between athletics as a business or as ‘fun.’ A subplot in which JB tries to court an ambitious, hotshot player named Popo gives us a look at the competitive, image-based world of sports management; guys in suits swarm around budding sports players to pretend to be their friend, an attitude the film somewhat condemns JB for being a part of.

One of the film’s saving graces is its cast – Jon Hamm is a decent lead as JB, though he doesn’t have to stretch his acting muscles far beyond “family-friendly Don Draper,” and he has entertaining chemistry with his friend Ash, played by Aasif Mandvi, who thankfully doesn’t have to put on an insultingly thick accent this time around. All of the major Indian performers acquit themselves well despite the limited material they have to work with – newcomer Pitobash is a delight as Amit Rohan, the translator/baseball fan JB hires to accompany Dinesh and Rinku. It’s not all roses, though; Alan Arkin as the same role he’s played since Little Miss Sunshine – cantankerous old man – who literally sleepwalks through his thankless role and actually telegraphs his disappearance for much of the film, almost as if to ask “where’s my paycheck?” Bill Paxton brings a paternal gravitas to his role as a coach who must train the kids, but he doesn’t get the screentime or the material to make much of an impression otherwise.

Unfortunately for the film, it also covers territory so many other underdog sports movies have, with a bit of Slumdog-esque cultural tourism. Films of this type are hard to get right, and this one falls just on the wrong side of exploitative. While Gillespie and crew try to provide an earnestness to the fish-out-of-water elements of the Indian kids coming to America, it laughs at the kids for their childlike wonder at American culture a bit too much, instead of sharing in their wonder. When Jon Hamm goes to India, it’s all an Eat Pray Love-esque spiritual experience, complete with crowds of children happily running to him as he smiles in humility, and earthy shots of Indian mothers washing clothes in rivers; when the kids come to America with him, it’s all about how much the kids go gaga for pizza and Keith Urban, and throw up in cars after accidentally getting drunk.

Like Blended, Million Dollar Arm is the tale of a man learning how to be a part of a family. JB’s sexy-single life antics before he has to man up and start taking care of a family, as illustrated by him trading in his sexy convertible for a white mom minivan. Lake Bell is decently fun here, though the film betrays its own shallowness (or perhaps JB’s) by complaining that she’s “not a model” – essentially, her character is the frumpy, down-to-earth girl that needs to save JB from his life of single self-absorption and fucking models all the time. At one point, he admits, “Baseball shouldn’t be about business. It should be about fun”; however, the ‘fun’ is ultimately just a ploy to facilitate the economic benefit of getting them signed to a team. To that end, the film feels a little contradictory and overly sentimental without earning it.

Overall, Million Dollar Arm is a pleasant piece of ephemera with several decent performances behind it. The material is far too trite and sugary to really impress, and the weird cultural tourism leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There’s some wonderfully competent filmmaking here (including some fun location shooting in various parts of India), but the whole product feels nothing more than perfunctory. All in all, though, I’d rather not think of Indians as our scrappy little servants who happily accept whatever crumbs we can give them for a faint sense of social mobility.

Clint’s Verdict: Worth a Watch

Million Dollar Arm Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink every time the Indian kids make a social faux pas
2) Drink any time JB (Jon Hamm) makes a social faux pas
3) Drink whenever someone says a variant of “They’re not ready” or “they need more time”
Finish Your Drink When:
JB says, “Baseball shouldn’t be about business. It should be about fun.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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