Critics are supposed to feign omniscience at all times, I know, but let me confess at once: I don’t get it. Looking at the box office results — his last two vehicles have pulled in more than $320 million to date in North America alone — it’s impossible to deny that Adam Sandler is now the nation’s biggest movie star, assuming that the measure of a star’s worth is his/her ability to inspire scads of people to line up for stale genre retreads that don’t feature expensive, eye-boinging special effects. When you actually take a gander at Big Daddy, however, it’s difficult to determine exactly how he’s pulling off this remarkable feat; no matter how stalwart a fan you may be, you’ve gotta admit that the guy’s not really doing much of anything.
Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a former law student who has forsaken his chosen profession after collecting a hefty personal-injury settlement. To forestall accusations of chronic laziness, Sonny works one day a week as a tollbooth clerk, but mostly he just sorta, y’know, hangs out. Then one day, in a plot twist shamelessly swiped from Three Men and a Baby, he winds up saddled with his absent roommate’s 5-year-old son, Julian (played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, both of whom either have or affect a cloyingly cute speech impediment). Desperate to prove to his fed-up girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) that he’s capable of acting responsibly, he impulsively decides to ”adopt” the kid, whereupon the pair proceed to spend a great deal of time just sorta, y’know, hanging out.
In essence, it’s the joy of just sorta, y’know, hanging out that this oddly phlegmatic movie is celebrating. The inadvertent-father premise is hardly original, having previously turned up in everything from Fathers’ Day to Kolya. But while we could ordinarily presume a significant generation gap between adult and child (and thus a modicum of conflict), here the question of which character is the more mature would have to be settled with a coin toss. Big Daddy is ostensibly about Sonny’s belated acceptance of adulthood, but his inner journey is so perfunctory that his appearance in a business suit at the end comes across as just another gag. A last-minute crisis that finds Sonny in danger of losing Julian feels like an afterthought, and culminates in a courtroom climax where it’s suggested with a straight face that Sonny would be a good father to Julian simply by virtue of not physically abandoning him. (This is perhaps the first movie in history in which you might actually find yourself rooting for the social-services drone who comes to claim the child in the name of bureaucracy.)
With no real plot to distract us, we’re left only with endless preadolescent high jinks and the force of Sandler’s personality, which isn’t exactly hurricane-strength. To be frank, what he fundamentally seems to be, here and elsewhere, is lazy. That’d be just fine if laziness were his shtick, as miserliness was Jack Benny’s and oafishness was Chris Farley’s, but the trouble is that it’s not Sandler’s screen persona who seems to be exerting as little energy as possible — it’s Sandler himself. Watching one of his movies is like watching entertainment created by your goof-off neighbors down the block; the entire project gives the impression of having been tossed together, during a slow weekend, by guys who didn’t know what else to do after the home team got eliminated from the play-offs.
In a way, I suppose that his blase, I-just-work-here (and-don’t-blame-me-if-they-pay-me-almost-20-mil) quality makes Sandler the ideal star for the age of video — an age in which small, versatile camcorders allow virtually anybody to create personal mini-dramas in the backyard — and I can’t really say that I mean that as a compliment. Writing a school essay in the year 2005, the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest predicts that the future of drama will be dominated by ”the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras…” If Big Daddy is any indication of the way things are headed, we’re already nearly there. D+