There’s a scene midway through the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore vehicle “Blended” that sees the two stars, playing single parents thrust together on a South African resort, accidentally meet up for morning coffee. They don’t say much, commiserating over their respective kids’ sleeping habits, but what they do say is believable, radiating an unhurried, unforced chemistry that’s enough to make one wonder why these two actors have only made three movies together over the past 16 years. Then they gaze out toward the resort grounds, and witness two poorly rendered CGI rhinos copulating with great vigor. Cut to a shot of the barista addressing the camera with a Catskills smirk: “You don’t see that in New Jersey!” This scene serves as a perfect microcosm for the film as a whole, which should see solid if unspectacular family business over Memorial Day weekend.
Granted, that sequence is the only one in the film that includes a direct rupture of the fourth-wall, or a depiction of wildlife mating, or any mention at all of New Jersey, but it nonetheless epitomizes the pic’s perverse instinct to undercut its own charms at every opportunity.
Reuniting Sandler and Barrymore for the first time in a decade, and the pair with director Frank Coraci for the first time since “The Wedding Singer,” “Blended” suffers from a fundamental lack of trust in its audience, following every unexpectedly smart exchange with a numbskull pratfall or one-liner, and every instance of genuine sincerity with an avalanche of schmaltz. Unquestionably an improvement over recent Sandler efforts like “Grown Ups 2,” “Jack and Jill” and “Just Go With It” — which, to be fair, were all truly vile, “death of cinema” sorts of affairs — the film is all the more disappointing for having actual potential to squander.
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Here Sandler plays Jim, a widowed everyman sporting goods seller with three daughters, while Barrymore tackles the role of Lauren, an interior decorator who specializes in closets, and a divorced mother to two boys. The two meet for a disastrous blind date at Hooters in the film’s opening scene, after which they resolve never to speak to one another again. In no time, they randomly meet again at a drugstore, then meet again thanks to an odd credit card mixup, then meet once more at a fabulous resort in South Africa with each claiming the same assumed identity, forcing the two — and their children — to bunk up in the same suite for a week.
This laborious setup takes at least 45 minutes of screen time to get through, and it may well go down as the most boring extended stretch in Sandler’s entire filmography. Screenwriters Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera seem problematically aware of how unlikely this central scenario must seem, and thus spend an exhausting amount of time explaining every little step. This will not be the first time the film screeches to a halt in order to address potential structural problems that aren’t particularly important, creating bigger issues in the process.
Once they finally arrive in Africa (and rarely do the characters refer to their current location with any more specificity than that), Jim and Lauren gradually start to catch on that they’re perfect for one another, while the huge communal brood struggles to make nice while sorting out their own individual issues. Jim’s children include teenage Hillary (Bella Thorne), eternally mistaken for a boy despite her supermodel good looks on account of a slightly masculine haircut; Espn (Emma Fuhrmann), who believes she can still communicate with her dead mother, a strange quirk that will be ruthlessly exploited to jerk a few tears later on; and youngster Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind), who suffers from a near toxic excess of cuteness. On Lauren’s end, Jake (Braxton Beckham) is a chronic masturbator (otherwise known as a 13-year-old boy), while Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein) is having trouble with his baseball skills — if only there were a potential father figure around to teach him.
In general, the film is at its absolute worst when it tries to shoehorn in bits of schtick, which rarely arise organically out of the narrative. A painfully unfunny throwaway gag in which Lauren and her business partner (Wendi McLendon-Cobey) are mistaken for lesbians, for example, requires no fewer that three otherwise inexplicable bits of extended exposition just to set up, and hardly elicits a half-chuckle when the punchline arrives.
The harder the film tries to wring out a laugh, the more awkwardly it whiffs, which makes it all the more puzzling that Sandler and Barrymore’s far looser, seemingly unscripted banter isn’t afforded more screentime. Though her character here is little more than a standard-issue fretful fussbudget, Barrymore brings the best out of Sandler whenever she’s granted a little leeway.
One has to give “Blended” some credit though. It is, after all, among the rare Sandler pics that feature no farting, pooping or vomiting of any kind. (And its lone urination gag is actually pretty funny!) It also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, giving female characters decent screentime together. And breaking from the long string of projects in which Sandler exclusively limned successful, super-rich, sexually alluring characters harassed by their socioeconomic inferiors, his character here is thoroughly middle class and believably harried, giving the film’s inherently conservative, family-focused agenda a welcome grounding in something resembling reality.
Popping up in smaller roles, Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe have some decent lines as randy fellow vacationers, though Terry Crews steals the most scenes as an insinuating South African lounge singer who appears throughout as a sort of sleazy Greek chorus. (Aside from Crews and Abdoulaye N’Gom’s hotel activities manager, actual African characters function purely as props here — which is disappointing, though one could argue that’s how they likely appear to rich Westerners on luxury package tours in real life, too.)
On a technical level, the filmmaking is at times surprisingly sloppy, with a few noticeably mismatched edits, poorly focused shots, and imperfectly synced dialogue. Locations, however, are well-scouted.