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by: Scott Renshaw

As alleged harbingers of the apocalypse go, Adam Sandler hardly seems worth the consternation. Sure, he's a comedian with a routine based primarily on silly voices, screaming, and the broadest of broad humor. He's also just the latest in a long tradition of anarchic adolescent doofus humor, a tradition with forebears like the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. A clown doing poo-poo jokes can still be a pretty entertaining clown, which Sandler has done with sporadic effectiveness in his previous films.

In BIG DADDY, Sandler wants to be one of those laughing on the outside, crying on the inside clowns, and plugs himself into a sentimental, irritatingly generic high concept comedy. Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a 32-year-old law school graduate who has decided that laying around living off a big personal injury settlement is better than practicing law. His irresponsibility is beginning to wear on his long-time girlfriend (Kristy Swanson), leading Sonny to contemplate a life change. The opportunity comes when 5-year-old Julian (Dylan and Cole Sprouse), the heretofore unknown son of Sonny's roommate Kevin (Jon Stewart) shows up at the door. With Kevin on a business trip in China, Sonny decides to become Julian's surrogate father, a job he quickly realizes his more difficult than he anticipated.

And therein the laughs ensue, at least every once in a while. Sonny's laissez-faire parenting style produces plenty of scenes in which Julian urinates in some public place, wears outrageous clothes, or repeats profanities in his cuter-than-cute widdle boy voice. Some are funny, some are groan-worthy, and some just feel a little icky as a troubled child is turned into a prop. It's easier to latch on to the funny, however, when Sandler is the irresponsible id-beast we all know and love -- screaming out his dismay over missing McDonald's breakfast, eating cereal in front of the television, slapping newspapers over Julian's wet bed like the boy was a puppy. Sandler as a long-lost Stooge, a la THE WATERBOY, is where his mischievous personality works best.

Sandler as a would-be actor, expanding his range with touching personal relationships and gentle romantic banter, is a huge miscalculation. His previous attempt at broadening his audience, last year's THE WEDDING SINGER, was successful because it remained rooted in silliness and never got excessively mawkish. BIG DADDY is the very epitome of mawkishness, full of cutesy-pie chats with love interest Joey Lauren Adams and sad-eyed father/son moments, all set to Teddy Castellucci's syrupy string score. Worse yet, it's a film into which any one of several dozen actors could have been plugged with no change. It's a film in which the gags are just impediments to the protagonist learning his Important Life Lesson. Sandler, with his smirky grin and schoolyard hostility, always looks like he'd rather be learning how to play a Nintendo game.

There are a few nice comic touches in BIG DADDY, from Steve Buscemi's turn as an oddball homeless guy to a perfect faux-Barney kiddie video. There are also plenty of irritating touches, like Rob Schneider's indiscriminately Middle Eastern delivery guy and the pound-it-into-the-ground references to Hooters. BIG DADDY is the sort of film where it becomes easy to pick on lazy inconsistencies like a televised NHL game announced as "crucial to the standings" despite the fact that the film takes place in October, the first month of the NHL season. If Sandler worried about keeping us laughing, and understood he's more fun to watch when he is a child than when he has one, there wouldn't be enough time to get bogged down in the cheap emotions or sloppy writing. Maybe some day he'll realize how much better off he is in the HAPPY GILMOREs of his career, when the French get around to labeling him a comic genius.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 daddy-oh-no's: 4


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