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The Big Picture: Stale-looking ‘That’s My Boy’ is a raunchy risk for Adam Sandler

By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times –

Adam Sandler may be making the biggest gamble of his career this summer. Even though his films have become increasingly family-friendly in recent years, Sandler’s new movie, “That’s My Boy,” due out June 15, is an ultra-raunchy, R-rated comedy that features Sandler as a beer-guzzling, dope-smoking, deadbeat dad who suddenly shows up to wreak havoc on his straight-laced son’s wedding.

Reviews will likely be terrible — not that it matters, because Sandler’s goofball comedy isn’t aimed at the cognoscenti. Critics routinely trash Sandler’s films; last year, his “Jack and Jill” earned a minuscule 3 (out of a possible 100) at the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregation website.

But after an unparalleled run of success at the box office, chinks are starting to show in Sandler’s armor. And unfortunately for the comedian, Sony Pictures — his home studio where he enjoys carte blanche — is under financial pressure because of large losses at the parent corporation.

Ten of the last 11 comedies made by Sandler’s Happy Madison production company earned at least $100 million in the United States and Sandler’s international performance has been impressive. At a time when most studios are cutting back spending on comedies because they rarely do business overseas, Sandler still enjoys robust budgets — in the $80 million-plus range — because he has turned himself into a global commodity.

Since 2008’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” nearly every one of his films has made as much overseas as stateside.

Last year, though, the PG-rated “Jack and Jill” made $74 million in the U.S., and virtually the same amount overseas. Now comes Sandler playing a mean-spirited loser in an especially crass film that will be off-limits to his youngest fans. “That’s My Boy” will be Sandler’s first R-rated comedy under his own brand (as opposed to films he’s made with prominent directors like Paul Thomas Anderson or Judd Apatow).

“That’s My Boy” is being touted as a return to Sandler’s mid-1990s roots, but buzz hasn’t been good. The film’s trailer was met with stony silence when it screened at a convention for theater owners in Las Vegas last month. The comments about the trailer on YouTube have been withering.

Marketers at rival studios I spoke to seemed skeptical of the film’s commercial potential, largely because of the unlikable character Sandler plays. Audiences have repeatedly turned out to see him play lovable losers and knuckleheads.

But when Sandler pushed the envelope, as he did in 2000’s “Little Nicky” in which he played the devil’s hapless youngest son, fans stayed away in droves, resulting in the biggest flop of his career (and that film wasn’t even rated R).

“Playing a bad parent who comes off as a total imbecile is just not very funny,” said one marketing chief. “There’s just no planet where that’s a funny situation. You can play a stoner uncle or a bad teacher, but a mean, neglectful parent? That’s a killer.”

If “That’s My Boy” ends up being another box-office disappointment, it will put a huge amount of stress on the relationship between Sandler and Sony Pictures. With the industry full of rumblings about the studio being on the block, Sony is expected to be entering a new austerity era in terms of movie expenditures. That leaves little wiggle room for Sandler, who takes home roughly $25 million for producing and starring in his films, and according to Vanity Fair is the third-highest paid star in Hollywood, trailing only Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Sony has been a popular oasis for Hollywood talent, with co-chairman Amy Pascal having forged especially close relationships with such stars and filmmakers as Will Smith, David Fincher, Roland Emmerich and Kevin James (whose hits were made by Sandler’s production company). But if the studio starts to crack down on costs, even Sandler wouldn’t be spared from a budget squeeze.

It’s one thing to make $80-million comedies when the films are bringing in lots of money. But if “That’s My Boy” doesn’t deliver, it will force Sony to essentially renegotiate the wide latitude Sandler has enjoyed making his films. (For a precedent, look no further than James Brooks, who long had free reign at Sony until his costly “How Do You Know” bombed in 2010, ending his long tenure at the studio.)

Comedy is rooted in the zeitgeist, which is why, with rare exception, comedians and comic filmmakers — be it Mike Myers, Jim Carrey or the Farrelly brothers — rarely have more than a decade-long run at the top. Most comics skew young with their appeal.

But when young audiences grow up, their tastes change.

At 45, Sandler isn’t maturing along with his fans; he’s trying to appeal to a male demographic that’s half his age. (His co-star, Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live,” is a decade younger than Sandler, but has yet to prove himself as a big-screen drawing card.)

I suspect Sandler and Sony see the future in a rosier light, but they aren’t talking. For years, Sandler has refused interview requests from print media outlets, preferring to promote his films through carefully choreographed TV and radio appearances. His publicist would not make Sandler or any of his associates available to speak to me.

Even though Pascal is one of the most accessible executives in Hollywood, she canceled a scheduled interview with me at the request of the Sandler camp.

Sony insiders say I’m underestimating the loyalty of Sandler’s audience. They argue that early word-of-mouth screenings for “That’s My Boy” have received enthusiastic reactions. (Though they wouldn’t show me the film.) They also point to Sandler’s strength with the 17-34 demographic, noting that the comic has a whopping 31 million Facebook friends, giving the studio instant access to a huge swath of potential moviegoers.

Sony also believes that “That’s My Boy” is a movie that returns Sandler to the cutting edge of comedy. After all, raunchy, R-rated films including “Hangover Part II,” “Bridesmaids,” Horrible Bosses” and “Bad Teacher” did huge business last summer.

But what I’ve seen of “That’s My Boy” feels stale and forced. As one commenter on YouTube put it, it’s basically Sandler doing an impression of himself from the ‘90s.

That’s not an auspicious sign.

For better or worse, comedy always surges forward with the times. Show me a comic who’s revisiting his past, and I’ll show you a comic whose career is heading for the scrap heap.

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