Monday, January 12, 2009

Bedtime Stories / ** (PG)

Skeeter Bronson: Adam Sandler
Patrick: Jonathan Morgan Heit
Bobbi: Laura Ann Kesling
Jill: Keri Russell
Kendall: Guy Pearce
Mickey: Russell Brand
Violet Nottingham: Teresa Palmer
Barry Nottingham: Richard Griffiths
Aspen: Lucy Lawless
Wendy: Courteney Cox
Marty Bronson: Jonathan Pryce

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy. Running time: 99 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor and mild language).

I think every time I review an Adam Sandler movie I feel the need to explain that I’m really a fan of the guy. As he matures and grows as a filmmaker I like him even more. Yet, somehow, I continue to find myself steering people away from his work. His early movies suffered from juvenilia that was crude to the point of being cruel. As his filmography has grown he has softened and warmed to the point of producing material that cares and loves, yet his films still suffer from the same problem they always have—he tries too hard to come off as sincere.

In his latest movie, “Bedtime Stories”, Sandler (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”) has softened to the point that he has actually made a family film. His Skeeter Bronson is a loveable looser who works as a handyman for a hotel. Skeeter’s father (Jonathan Pryce, “Pirates of the Caribbean”) had owned the hotel at one time and dreamed of Skeeter taking it over one day, but he was forced to sell the property to hotel mogul Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths, the “Harry Potter” series). Nottingham turned the property into a luxury high rise and forgot his promise to put Skeeter in charge one day, but kept him on staff.

While Skeeter continues to see pompous kiss-ups like Kendall (Guy Pearse, “L.A. Confidential”) get promoted through the hard labor of others, his sister (Courteney Cox, ABC’s “Scrubs”) finds herself looking for a new school administrative position after she learns that the school she principals is being shut down. Sandler and Cox have fun playing off each other’s typical personas—Sandler the cut up and Cox’s uptight controller. However, I’m not sure why they haven’t spoken to each other in four years. They don’t act estranged. It seems like a detail thrown in from a screenplay draft that wasn’t used.

Skeeter’s sister asks him to watch her two children while she is out of state for a job interview. Skeeter is pretty clueless on child matters, but he remembers the bedtime stories his father told him when he was younger. He tells the children a lame story that is a veiled allegory of his own life at the hotel. The children then proceed to change the story so it is better—adding elements that children want to hear, like having the hero get a chance at the job he wants and having it rain gumballs. Skeeter is shocked when Nottingham decides to allow him a chance to challenge Kendall’s theme idea for the new hotel he is building, and then astounded when later that day it rains gumballs. He realizes the story he told the children has something to do with the day’s events and determines to change his fortunes by telling the children a new bedtime story every night.

The bedtime stories act as a point of humor where we get to see Sandler and the rest of the cast placed into fantasy settings—medieval times, a western, and a space opera—and then speculate on how these people would find themselves in these different settings. After the kids go to work on them we see spectacular acts of strangeness that then take place in the reality of Skeeter’s life, sometimes with logical explanations (as when it is revealed that the raining gumballs were the result of an accident on an overpass) sometimes with no explanation (as when Skeeter runs into all of his former girlfriends in a restaurant and they dance the Hokey Pokey).

It wouldn’t be a proper Adam Sandler movie without a love interest that is way out of his league. This time around it’s Keri Russell (“Waitress”) as Jill, a teacher at the same school being shut down on his sister. She takes the kids during the day, but opposing work schedules and babysitting duties don’t get in the way of the two spending a good deal of time together during the course of only a week. Eventually after pretending to be his girlfriend for that restaurant full of exes, Jill begins to fall for Skeeter. Of course, when she finds out the hotel he works at is responsible for shutting down her school, she holds it against him even though he is in no way responsible for this development. That is what is known as an idiot plot.

In fact, there are far too many good actors in this idiot plot to justify its idiocy. Along with the Great Brits, Griffiths and Pryce, Pearse has made a point to pick intelligent projects throughout his career. I’m not sure what attracted them to these rather standard roles. Cox and Russell deserve more than what they’re given here. Lucy Lawless (“Xena: Warrior Princess”) has her comedic talents wasted in an underwritten part as a concierge witch. As Skeeter’s best friend, Russell Brand is never even given the chance to steal the show—as he did in last spring’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. And, although Teresa Palmer (“Wolf Creek”) handles well the potentially plum role as Nottingham’s Paris Hilton-esque daughter, the movie forgets her by its conclusion.

The silliness involved in the plot gimmick of bedtime stories coming true will probably be enough to hold most kids’ interests in this movie, but it seems as if screenwriters Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy had more ideas to explore than they were allowed in a movie with so many characters and a running time of just over 90 minutes. Shankman has made a career of directing bubblegum pop family movies. His “Hairspray” from last year had the bubblegum appearance, but contained a meaty social commentary in the middle. This time around his bubblegum is like those gumballs that rain on Skeeter; it’s hollow in the middle.

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