Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production team has rarely put much stock in the rules of classical storytelling, but its newest project, “Just Go With It,” manages to misfire in two seemingly incompatible directions. A puerile kiddie-comedy without the anarchic energy, and a schmaltzy romantic comedy without the sweetness, this Hawaii-set farce is too frantic and too lackadaisical a take on the oft-adapted French play “Cactus Flower.” Working with longtime director Dennis Dugan, Sandler and the rest of the film’s marquee cast could nonetheless steer it toward good returns.
From the outset, we seem to be firmly in vintage Sandler territory. An ’80s-set prologue shows Sandler’s Danny (affixed with a mammoth fake schnoz) as he gets his heart broken on his wedding day. Drowning his sorrows in the bar afterward, he finds that his wedding ring — and subsequent tall tales about his awful, abusive spouse — functions as a fail-safe casual-sex magnet. Flash forward to the present day, and Danny’s a wealthy Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, still single and still pulling the same sad-sack husband trick on nubile UCLA coeds.
Wacky shots of plastic-surgery disasters constitute almost all the jokes in the opening 10 minutes, but then again, this is a film that doesn’t know when to quit: Halfway-funny early gags on an unusual euphemism for defecation and an unseen character’s soul patch are reprised nearly a dozen times throughout the pic.
Danny abstains from pulling the fake-wife trick when he meets schoolteacher Palmer (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, seen quite frequently in a swimsuit), though she happens upon his prop ring after a tryst. Immediately segueing from satyr to lovestruck aspiring family man, having apparently fallen head-over-heels with Palmer off-camera, Danny claims he’s getting a divorce and recruits his single-mom office assistant, Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), to stand in as his soon-to-be ex-wife.
Of course, this deception bequeaths an endless series of increasingly insane follow-up fibs — Palmer also has to meet Danny’s “kids” (Griffin Gluck and Bailee Madison, the latter affecting a faux-Cockney accent) and Katherine’s new “lover” (Nick Swardson, affecting a faux-Eurohash accent) — although the web of lies makes about as much sense as the real story. For reasons too laborious to follow, the whole clan sets off on a Hawaiian vacation, where Katherine runs into her sorority-sister nemesis (Nicole Kidman) and invents a whole new set of fictions to impress her.
When a film swings as wildly and frequently as this one, it’s bound to hit a few lucky shots, and a scene in which Swardson wrestles with an obviously fake, comatose sheep is just surreal enough to connect. More often than not, the pic just goes for the easy layup: In the course of one three-minute period, we see Sandler nailed in the crotch, Madison hurled into the mud and Swardson attacked by a wild boar, with none of these pratfalls even gesturing at a proper setup.
Thesping is all good enough for this material, though Decker’s purely reactive character seems to have been a tough one for a first-time film actress to play. But the best actor here, Kidman, gets a rather uncomfortable run through the ringer, shot entirely in the most unflattering clothes and light. (She and Aniston seem to be inhabiting different continents in their conversation scenes.) Kidman is also given a closeted gay husband (rock star Dave Matthews) and required to ask Danny for a plastic surgery recommendation; the filmmakers can’t have been unaware of her gossip-column history, and this all feels more like cruelty to the actress than knowing inside-humor.
Hawaii’s reliably beautiful locations (and outlandish luxury resorts) are well lensed, and other tech work is adequate.