BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 23, 2011
The columns I’ve written so far in this space may suggest that going to the movies these days is a happy experience. That is, in part, because of the time of year: We have learned that the only movies the business has any pretense of respect for open as a year closes—because Christmas is a rich season that builds towards the Academy Awards nominations. It is also because I prefer to praise films, or to send you in search of watchable stuff. And because I like to cultivate the illusion of being good-natured.
But any responsible movie column needs to say that what’s out there is trash and dismay most of the time. And I’m not going to go with Just Go With It (not even for the chance of good nature), despite the fact that a few critics have chosen to be moderately pleased with it. The film is lousy, lazy, and nasty, and the kind of ordeal that leaves you with a hole in your stomach and another in your brain because it points out the tragic way our country and our film business have given up the ghost of comedy, the oil that made the machine work once upon a time.
The setting is Los Angeles (have Angelenos noticed that the industry has lost all sense of how to film their city?). Danny (Adam Sandler) is a plastic surgeon in his early forties (Sandler is 44). When much younger, he was about to get married until he overheard his bride-to-be saying she was sleeping with other guys because she hated Danny’s huge nose, but she’d go through with it for the financial deal. So he backed out of the wedding and got a nose job. Still, he kept his ring and learned over the years that it was like an aphrodisiac to hot babes.
If you’re going to see a plastic surgeon any time soon, there are a lot of warning questions in the paragraph above, and they all have to do with common sense and taste (which may not be in line with plastic surgery). I can recall a time when a Billy Wilder, say, would have known for sure that this Danny was a creep worth taking apart. Now, he thinks he’s a nice guy.
In Just Go With It (which Adam Sandler helped produce), the day comes when Danny meets his Miss Wonderful and Miss Right (Brooklyn Decker)—she’s an empty dish, a blonde about half his age; he sleeps with her on the beach, but then she finds the ring in his pants pocket. Her Jane Austenish virtue takes umbrage at the ring. Whereupon, Danny, whose single facility in life seems to be rapid-response lying, tells her well, yes, he is married but it’s nearly over—the papers are ready to be signed—so she can take his jerk-off character seriously still. But Miss Right is dogged. She wants to hear this from the soon-to-be ex-wife. That’s how Danny enlists his nurse, Katherine (Jennifer Aniston), to play the wife. Alas, Katherine lets slip the fact that she has two children, and so, Danny has to take them on as his and take everyone to Hawaii. Why? In plot terms, don’t ask—I’m sure the movie had a deal with some Hawaiian resort.
If that was painful to read, it was hard to write, too. At several points, I had to strain to remember the nonsense of the film. But nothing was there. The narrative set-up (the word “narrative” is ironic) does not get in the way with yards of scenes where it feels as if the players are doing reckless improvs, making it up as they go along, deaf to anything except the prospect of an opening weekend with Aniston and Sandler.
The movie’s dumb assurance was well-founded, and, in its first weekend, Just Go With It grossed over $30 million. The credits say it was written by Allen Loeb and Timothy Dowling, and there are references back to Cactus Flower, a movie of the late ’60s written by I.A.L. Diamond, who was once Billy Wilder’s writing partner, as well as another play by Abe Burrows and a French play before that. Dennis Dugan directed, and he has done enough previous Sandler pictures for some curse of friendship and carelessness to have set in. I know, critics tend to write Sandler off. They are wrong, and the truth is worse. He has talent, as witnessed in Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, and a lot of Funny People. But, clearly, he is smug, lazy, and greedy, and without a care in the world that he might be making comedies for millions of people who feel wretched about the world and their place in it.
There was a time—it coincides more or less with the great American songbook—when America made comedies about love, sex, money, truth, hope, and despair—all the important things—as if the country had been founded for this purpose. If you care to try some of them, go to Trouble in Paradise, The Lady Eve, His Girl Friday, Midnight, My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, The Shop Around the Corner, or Some Like It Hot, and just follow the directors, the writers, and the players you’ve met. These films were smart in situation, wit, and talk. They were pictures about the struggle between or among the sexes (all of them) that made the nation seem interesting. If you want to go beyond the films, read James Harvey’s book Romantic Comedy or Molly Haskell’s classic, From Reverence to Rape.
Only then should you submit to the monstrous ugliness, the sustained indifference, and the casual defamation of human nature and romantic hope that is called Just Go With It. Around the mid-point of the film, Nicole Kidman appears in a horrible part, looking awful. Why? I can’t say. She was once one of the best actresses we had—just try Birthday Girl, To Die For, Birth, or several others. That she should be in this film is a small but sure sign of a dire betrayal that is occurring. When a country loses the ability to make fine comedy, there is trouble in store graver than recession, more lasting than war. This is so bad you need to see it. But take a vomit bag.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.