It’s No Respect Week here at Vulture, which means we’re celebrating things that never seem to get any love: schlock rock, well-executed over-the-top action sequences, romance novels, and, yes, a novelty song by a comedian whose catchphrase was “No respect.” Something else that doesn’t get appreciated enough: the emotional impact of bad movies, as Vulture staffer Jesse David Fox reveals here.
I went into Blended expecting nothing. Actually, I went into Blended expecting less than nothing. I didn't think about it at all before entering the theater. It's probably why I was caught so off-guard by the movie’s first scene. Jim (Adam Sandler) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) are single parents on a terrible blind date at Hooters. After a series of unfortunate events, Lauren has enough and says something to the effect of, "I can see why your wife left you." And that’s when it hits me. There's a pause that lasts for hours. My throat goes dry. My chest hollows completely. I know that pause. I've never been married, but I am very familiar with the feeling of being on a date where someone assumes divorce when it was actually death. This is how the most moving movie experience of my life began.
It’s a hyperbolic statement, but it’s true. Believe me – I felt it, and I am telling you. None of that is to say that Blended is a good movie. It's not. Blended is a bad movie. It's a very bad, stupid, bad movie. Vulture’s David Edelstein was correct when he wrote, "It’s a good family movie the way Hooters is a good family restaurant." Yet I cried more while watching it than I had in any movie since Fruitvale Station. In spite of its awfulness, I found myself more emotionally invested in it than I had been with any movie in recent memory. Or, maybe not in spite of – maybe it was because of Blended's badness. Its unbridled stupidity shut my brain down, allowing direct access to my heart.
Let me back up and explain what Blended is about. Lauren is a divorced mom of two boys and Jim a widower dad to three girls. As a result of some shenanigans, they end up all going on an African vacation together that's aimed at blending families. That's why the movie is titled Blended. I should've known that, since I grew up in a blended family, but it's possible the term didn't exist 20 years ago or that I was too young to know that it did. Like Jim's wife, my mom passed away from cancer. I was 7. My 9-year-old brother and I were left with a father who, like Jim, found himself a single parent. Several years later he married my stepmom, who had a son my brother's age and, like Blended's Lauren, was divorced. Our two families spent years blending, on vacations and otherwise.
This is the point where I say that I've never connected to a movie character more than I did to a 6-year-old blonde girl in a shitty Adam Sandler movie. There are many terrible ideas in this movie surrounding the children – Lauren's youngest son needs a man to teach him baseball and Sandler's eldest daughter needs a woman to teach her how to be a dateable lady. (As Edelstein wrote, "The setup of Blended doesn’t feel old-fashioned. It feels antediluvian.") But I assure you the way in which Sandler's two younger daughters interact was not one of them. The middle daughter, Espn (yes, I know), talks to her mom as if she were a phantom limb or imaginary friend, leaving extra seats, beds, and plates of food for her. The youngest, Lou, wonders implicitly, "When will I get a new mommy?" Blended, in its ham-fisted way, captures how a minor age difference can fundamentally affect how you process the death of a parent. I, like Lou, wanted a mom; my older brother, like Espn, wanted his mom. I was too young, my brain too rigid, to understand, like my brother might have, my mother's person-ness – a fact that to this day fills me with regret, sadness, jealousy, resentment, and, at times, anger. In turn, I, like Lou, took to blending much more easily than my sibling. As my co-workers who sat next to me at the screening can attest, I literally cried (and I literally mean “literally”) at every moment involving this charming yellow-haired little girl. There is a scene in which Lou asks if Lauren could tuck her in and Lauren proceeds to sing the song that Lou's birth mother used to sing to her – "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It's clunky and predictable, and yet I'm tearing up right now as I remember the scene. The obviousness of the moment forced my adult self to check out, leaving only my inner child to take the hit.
Eventually, the touching scene ends and Lauren leaves and Jim makes some stupid Adam Sandler comment. My co-workers joked throughout that at any moment a fart might interrupt any of the movie's sweet sentiments. Though Blended was surprisingly lacking in farts, they were on the right track. (Instead of farts, there was Terry Crews and his Ladysmith Black Mambazo—like background singers, whom I suspect were supposed to act like a Greek chorus, but instead acted as a vaguely racist reminder that you were watching a bad movie.) I’m thinking of one scene in particular. After spending a week being cute and nice to each other's kids, Jim sets up a romantic dinner for two. In the midst of flowers and candles, Jim and Lauren have a heartfelt conversation that felt wholly unique for a big studio movie, especially one this crass. Essentially, the two admit that they romantically fell for each other by falling for each other's good parenting. Lauren says something to the effect of, "You get that being a parent means putting your kids first 100 percent of the time." To which Jim responds, "No, it's 99 percent of the time. That last one percent, we get to do what we want."
At that moment, something flashed for me and, yes, I cried some more. See, I always understood on an intellectual level how hard my parents fought to make our blended family work and how important my brothers and I were to them. And I felt it as a kid, of course. But never once as an adult had I so completely gotten it. Jim and Lauren, my dad and mom, were people with their own wants and desires – wants and desires not so dissimilar from my own as a 28-year-old.
The scene continues and they lean in for a kiss – "Eeeeeee," I thought to myself, in excitement – but then, Jim stops and says he can't, he isn't ready. Before I could draw too many parallels to my own father, the director cuts to a shot of monkeys dressed like Hooters waitresses playing orchestral instruments. It was yet another example of the film being incapable of letting nice moments just be – and yet I was incredibly thankful.
I watch a lot of movies for work and, maybe more importantly, I watch all those movies as work. I might try to watch everything as a fan first, but in the background I'm always looking for things worth writing about, no matter how seemingly mundane. And it's not just me. Because of social media, I think that audiences are being trained to form shareable opinions. Bad movies – like truly bad movies, not the “so bad it's good” movies – force me to turn that impulse off. Within the first few minutes of Blended, about the moment when Barrymore spits/barfs out French onion soup, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get a Vulture piece out of it. My defenses were lowered completely and continually. Before I could process why I was crying so much, someone would say a joke so terrible that I'd forget. And I’m grateful for that. I couldn't have stayed in that headspace or that heartspace for an entire movie. It would've been too much. I very well might've walked out. And this is why the movie's utter badness was so important. Regardless of how much I hated its proclivity to end each scene with "punch lines," they brought me up for air and allowed me to distance myself. And then I was caught off-guard anew by every emotional beat.
I am fairly sure I'm not the only one. Maybe not necessarily at Blended, but others had to have had similar experiences at other Adam Sandler movies, as Adam Sandler movies are usually about something. I can imagine grown men and women being surprised at the fact that they were moved, even briefly, by That's My Boy (absent father), Grown Ups (the inevitable drifting apart of friendships), Big Daddy (being a new father), or Click (neglecting personal life; living for the future). I'm reminded of one of the few positive reviews of the rightfully panned I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, in which Nathan Lee wrote for The Village Voice, "Tremendously savvy in its stupid way, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is as eloquent as Brokeback Mountain, and even more radical." Another way of saying Sandler makes dumb movies might be to say he makes extremely simple ones. It's not a habit that will earn you decent reviews, but with the right audience member, it will be just what they need, as specificity has a way of impeding projection. Earlier this month, Bilge Ebiri, in his piece about why Sandler "might be the most important comedian of his generation," wrote, "Even in his later films, as Sandler has shed his exaggerated mannerisms and tackled more 'normal' roles, he has continued to stand at a distance. He can’t quite bring himself to act, almost like Jim Morrison couldn’t quite bring himself to sing." Like teenagers at a Catholic school dance making room for Jesus, Sandler's distance makes room for the viewer to put themselves and/or their history in. It won't happen for every movie for every person, but sometimes the combination works out.
Just like Blended did for me. I didn't know this going into Blended, but I learned I didn't want realism here. I have that. I, as I rarely do otherwise, wanted an escapist setting and physical comedy and a happy ending that was 100 percent trite. I didn't realize it beforehand, but I needed this movie to make me confront things that laid dormant, because I've failed to be able to on my own adult, overly intellectualized terms. I've tried to talk about my childhood with therapists, but I was too restrained, holding my history at a distance like it was a movie to be blogged about. Blended got at something base. Immaturity is needed when issues haven't necessarily matured since you were 7. And that's what Blended had in spades. It also gave me a reason to call my parents, partly to ask for their okay to publish this piece, and partly to say thank you.