That’s My Boy opens to the strains of Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages,” in what may or may not be an intentional fuck-you to the film’s weekend box-office rival, Rock of Ages. But that’s exactly the sort of gratuitous bird-flip Donny — the protagonist of this hilariously go-for-broke wallow in pure adolescence — would engage in. Of course, that’s not to say that there’s any actual characterization going on here. As played by Adam Sandler, Donny is less fully rounded person and more pseudo-SNL shtick. Sporting a thick Boston accent delivered in a high-pitched growl, his main trait seems to be an ability to keep open beers from spilling.
At least, that’s what he’s like when Sandler’s playing him. Before that, we get to see Donny as your average middle-schooler, obsessed with his insanely hot teacher Ms. McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino). One day, during detention, in a scene straight out of a Van Halen video, Ms. McGarricle requites Donny’s lust. And she keeps requiting, as the fantasy continues to snowball. The two become something of an item, shtupping every chance they get. When they’re finally discovered in front of the whole school, Donny is rewarded with a standing ovation and instant pop-culture celebrity as a boy Lothario, even getting his own made-for-TV biopic starring Alan Thicke and Ian Ziering. The pregnant Ms. McGarricle, alas, is shipped off to prison for 30 years.
These early scenes have a strangely expressionistic quality – as if the whole movie might continue in this wild, teen-boy’s-wet-dream-come-true vein. But Donny’s fame doesn’t last beyond the early nineties, and we learn that Han Solo(!), his son with Ms. McGarricle, of whom he was given custody, left as soon as he turned 18. Now Donny is a has-been who spends most of his time at a depressing strip club from hell and owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. He discovers that Han Solo (Andy Samberg), having christened himself Todd Peterson, is now a successful hedge fund manager and about to be married. Needing money, Donny crashes the wedding and, to help Han/Todd keep up the charade of his newly assumed identity in front of his fancy-pants in-laws-to-be, poses as his friend, an uncouth slob adrift amid the moneyed classes.
The action then proceeds to become a fairly predictable hybrid of Meet the Parents–esque comedy of embarrassment and Hangover-ian (or should that be Bridesmaids-ian?) raunch. But the twist, if we may call it that, is that Donny isn’t the fish out of water here: No, since this is another one of Sandler’s cinematic odes to the wonders of perpetual adolescence, his behavior charms his son’s extended circle of gentry. Rather, it’s neurotic Han/Todd who’s the odd man out. Mainly thanks to Donny’s awful parenting, he’s an uncoordinated cluster of constant anxiety, one who has to carry an extra pair of underwear around just to feel safe.
That’s My Boy is a funny movie, in part thanks to the fact that the whole cast, peopled partly with eighties refugees (Vanilla Ice plays himself as Donny’s best friend; he works at a fried chicken stand, with Todd Bridges, also playing himself, as his boss), seems to be in on the joke and having as much fun as Sandler. (Amurri’s mother Susan Sarandon shows up later on, playing the older Ms. McGarricle, and she positively glows with delight.) At times, you wonder if the film even knows how funny it is. It’s full of great little throwaway gags, but feels the need to nervously underline them. Unpacking his bag upon arrival at the wedding, Donny at one point pulls out a pair of nunchakus; it’d be a hilarious little moment, but the film drags it out, as Todd proceeds to point out the fact that Donny has just pulled out a pair of nunchakus. But I guess one doesn’t pick on Adam Sandler movies for insulting our intelligence; that way madness lies.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about That’s My Boy is that, although it hews to a fairly standard Hollywood template of resolution and reconciliation, it’s not too committed to forcing its characters to grow. Sandler tends to be at his weakest with soft-focus material like Click or Big Daddy; he never quite seems able to pull off the sincerity required of such parts. Indeed, in Big Daddy, Sandler’s character had to grow up so he could finally become a proper parent to the young kid he’d found himself saddled with. This time around, the problem isn’t that Dad has to learn to become an adult, but that the kid has to learn not to be such an uptight square. It’s a deeply cynical, possibly even evil, message, but it works here. In that sense, That’s My Boy seems to have saved its greatest fuck-you for Sandler’s own previous attempts at being kinder and gentler. And the results are soul-corrodingly funny.