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Critics and women warm to ''Big Daddy''

Bruce Fretts explains why the Adam Sandler hit is winning over a whole new audience

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Critics and women warm to ”Big Daddy”

Call me a moron — and I’m sure many of you will — but I loved ”Big Daddy.” As a professional ”cynical a–hole” (which is how most of my fellow critics are described in one of the movie’s most delicious inside jokes), I know I’m supposed to see Adam Sandler as a kind of cinematic Antichrist, singlehandedly bringing down the nation’s I.Q. with his lower-than-lowbrow humor. Yet for all of its gross-out gags about loogies and puking, ”Big Daddy” is the sweetest-souled, most socially responsible comedy to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

That’s right, I said ”socially responsible.” Yes, Sandler illegally adopts a five-year-old boy to impress his girlfriend, then teaches the tot how to trip Rollerbladers in Central Park. But in post-Columbine America, that seems like a relatively harmless prank. Besides, the rest of the movie is an affecting ode to the joys of fatherhood.

Before Gov. George W. Bush adopts ”Big Daddy” as the official comedy of his presidential campaign, be aware that this is no right-wing tract endorsing family values. The film also carries a surprising message of tolerance for homosexuals; two of Sandler’s law-school buddies are a lovingly monogamous gay couple, and his character defends them against anyone who might have a problem with that.

I confess that ”Big Daddy” occasionally crosses the thick line that separates ”cute” from ”cloying” (did the towheaded tyke really need to speak with that adawwable lisp?). Still, like the Styx ballads that Sandler praises with such convincingly hilarious passion in the film, ”Big Daddy” is sloppy, sentimental — and damn near irresistible.

Showbiz skeptics may view ”Big Daddy” as a calculated career move designed to expand Sandler’s audience beyond teenage boys (and in fact, it’s proving more popular among females than males). This process started with ”The Wedding Singer,” which added an element of romance lacking from his earlier numskull farces. He showed off a softer side again in ”The Waterboy”; his dim gridiron god may have been a rage-aholic, but he sure did love his Mama. And just as Jim Carrey did in ”Liar Liar,” Adam Sandler grows up in ”Big Daddy.” Not coincidentally, both movies are about irresponsible goofballs who learn to become good parents.

Does this mean Sandler’s next step will be an award-winning dramatic performance a la”The Truman Show”? Somehow, I doubt it. But what do I know? I’m a cynical a–hole.