Grown Ups 2 was crushed by critics. Vulture's Bilge Ebiri wrote, "It's hard to do justice to the absurd laziness of Grown Ups 2 ... Our heroes are now all living in the same small town together, and everybody’s pretty happy, so there’s little to motivate the action. It makes the first movie look like The Maltese Falcon." However, this utter lack of ambition might be part of the reason Grown Ups 2 is on track to be Sandler's first hit in two and half years: It takes full advantage of our culture's love of watching people just hang out — from the loosely improvised comedies of Judd Apatow to any number of comedy podcasts to reality TV itself.
Ebiri wasn't kidding: Nothing happens in Grown Ups 2. Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, and David Spade simply drive around their characters' town, stopping to say hello to old friends from SNL (Tim Meadows, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz, Ellen Cleghorne, and Melanie Hutsell all appear and get to make big character decisions) as well as other usual suspects. Sandler and his team bet that, like with Grown Ups, people would want to see him yuck it up with his famous pals. They were right, to the tune of a $40 million opening weekend.
Yet, I would argue that it wasn't that much of a gamble — it's been made pretty clear that there is an audience that finds other people doing everyday things interesting. Though movies that focused on the small conversations of friends have been around since at least French New Wave, it was Judd Apatow who pioneered a comedy style that stressed improvised bro-hangs over scripted dialogue. (Famously, there's the scene in Knocked Up where Seth Rogan, et al, discuss the film Munich that wasn't in the script but came from those guys actually having that conversation.) This summer's This Is the End, which is slowly but surely creeping its way toward a $100 million gross, takes place during the apocalypse, but it's mostly about a bunch of friends kicking it at another friend's mansion. There are all of the comedians with podcasts in which they have their buddies over to shoot the shit. And finally, we have the subgenre of reality TV shows where people simply work. As comedian Kyle Kinane put it on his album Death of the Party, "That's the pornography of this era: Just shows about people that have jobs where you do something."
You can call it mild voyeurism, but I think it's simply another sort of escapism. Escapism doesn't have to involve watching a guy or girl with a hot spouse, fighting crime in a fancy car — it can be something not too dissimilar from your everyday life, except without the consequences of it being your actual life. Why go to a sporting-goods store with your pals to make fun of a high-school chum when you can watch professional entertainers do so, like in Grown Ups 2? I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's essay about television, "E Unibus Pluram," in which he writes, "I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people ... For lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness ... Lonely people tend rather to be lonely because they decline to bear the emotional costs associated with being around other humans." Movies like Grown Ups 2 offer us a chance to have all the fun of stupidly joking around with our buddies with none of the risk of feeling embarrassed or insecure. It's our life without us in it — what can be better?