“Big Daddy” marks a step forward for Adam Sandler, as well as a strategy to expand his audience. While the loyal male-teen aud core will not be disappointed with the spate of gags just for them, story contains solid date-movie material and pic may well post domestic numbers matching those of megahit “The Waterboy.”
Sandler and the female audience discovered each other with “The Wedding Singer,” and he and regular writing partner Tim Herlihy retooled Steve Frank’s script to ensure that those women will keep rooting for him.
It’s typical Sandler territory in the early going as we meet 32-year-old slacker Sonny Koufax (the name an overt baseball homage), who works one day a week as a tollbooth attendant and spends loads of free time and money in the Big Apple, having collected a $200,000 award from a car accident. His grownup friends (mostly lawyers) are growing tired of his goofball ways, while g.f. Vanessa (Kristy Swanson) says she wants to go upstate and take some time off to think about their relationship.
After popping the question to Hooters girl turned doctor Corinne (Leslie Mann), Sonny’s roomie and fellow law school alum Kevin (Jon Stewart) is about to wing off to a job in China when pint-size, 5-year-old Julian (a role shared by identical twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) shows up at Sonny’s door. Julian shyly claims that he’s Kevin’s child from Buffalo, N.Y., but Kevin has never been to Buffalo, and leaves Sonny to take care of the kid during the Columbus Day holiday.
Before this least-likely dad can sort out things with social services bureaucrat Mr. Brooks (Josh Mostel), he bonds with Julian in a series of scenes balanced between juvenile comedy and heartwarming affection.
Sonny, realizing that his unexpected fatherhood is the ideal lure for Vanessa, poses as Kevin with Mr. Brooks, and gains custody. Even as Sonny and Julian grow closer — tyke dresses up any way he wants in public and wishes to be addressed as Frankenstein, and the two have their way with New Yorkers in parks and while trick-or-treating — Vanessa dumps Sonny for an absurdly older fellow, and Mr. Brooks gets wind of Sonny’s ruse.
In a narrative stretch that proves unexpectedly rewarding, Sonny runs into Layla (Joey Lauren Adams), Corinne’s nicer sis, leading to pic’s most charming scene: Sonny and Layla turn a bedtime story for Julian into a will-you-see-me-again dialogue. Besides giving him her heart, Layla (yet another lawyer, for the Sierra Club), also provides her pro bono services when Brooks takes Julian away and Sonny fights for custody.
Final section plays out in the courtroom, where Sonny finally faces off with his heartless dad (Joe Bologna) and Stewart’s by-now-forgotten character has an 11th-hour revelation.
“Happy Gilmore” helmer Dennis Dugan returns with far more confidence this time, though with fewer outrageous visual stunts. Tone is sometimes too carefully calibrated to appeal to all sectors, so the gross-out stuff is balanced with scenes of Sandler’s character in moments of repose and thoughtfulness, with Adams’ Layla a significant maturing force.
Result is uneven; the story’s more serious intentions often jar with the goofy sideshow. The inevitable happy ending is only slightly less pat and formulaic than in past Sandler-Herlihy scripts, but the ultimate sense is of a guy finally coming of age.
Sandler remains an extraordinarily limited actor who glides by on puppy-dog charm and charisma, and whose climactic courtroom speech is not quite up to what the pic requires dramatically.
Adams, in a much less substantial turn than her amazing role in “Chasing Amy,” is in the Julia Roberts league when it comes to smiles but lacks a basic chemistry with Sandler.
Creating a seamless presence, the Sprouse twins avoid being overly cutesy.
Stewart is wasted in plot’s bookending scenes, while Mann and Swanson carry the unhappy load of playing bitches. Pic is rich, however, with supporting comedic talent, including Bologna, Mostel, Rob Schneider and Steve Buscemi as an obnoxious homeless guy.
Tech credits are slick and assured, with Teddy Castellucci providing the syrupy music and d.p. Theo Van de Sande lighting the proceedings with rich autumnal hues.