Screenplay : Steve Franks and Tim Herlihy & Adam Sandler
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Adam Sandler (Sonny Koufax), Cole and Dylan Sprouse (Julian), Joey Lauren Adams (Layla), Leslie Mann (Corinne), Jon Stewart (Kevin), Rob Schneider (Delivery Man), Steve Buscemi (Homeless man), Kristy Swanson (Vanessa), Josh Mostel (Arthur Brooks)
"Big Daddy" is a perfect case study in trying to please two entirely different crowds: the beer-guzzling college guys who make up the majority of Adam Sandler's fans and the unlucky dates who get dragged along to the movie. The first half of "Big Daddy" is designed to be lewd, crude, and vulgar, while the second half is gushy sentiment that ranks slightly above the mawkishness of "Patch Adams." This is what happens when a script that has been bouncing around Hollywood for years gets turned into an "Adam Sandler vehicle."
The story is at least as old as Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" (1921)--the idea of a childish adult forced to grow up because he has to assume the responsibility of raising a child. Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, yet another in his string of characters suffering from (or reveling in) a case of arrested development. Early in the movie, Sonny is dumped by his ambitious girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) for good reason: he is an infantile slacker who has graduated from law school but is content to work one day a week in a New York toll booth. He can make such otherwise unrealistic choices in life because several years earlier he won a $200,000 court settlement when a cab ran over his foot. (In fact, the whole $200,000 settlement exists in the movie for the main purpose of explaining how Sonny can afford an enormous loft apartment in Manhattan that in reality would cost many thousands of dollars a month in rent.)
One day, five-year-old Julian (played by cutesy towheaded twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) is dropped off on his doorstep. Julian may or may not be the illegitimate son of Sonny's roommate, Kevin (Jon Stewart). Kevin, however, is in China on business, so Sonny takes responsibility for the tyke by teaching him how to trip rollerbladers in Central Park, urinate in public, curse, and clean up vomit by laying newspaper on top of it. In other words, he is a ridiculously inept father figure who is slowly turning an innocent child into the same kind of self-absorbed burden on society that he is.
But wait ... can Sonny learn responsibility? Can he figure out that letting a five-year-old do whatever he wants whenever he wants is not ideal parenting? Will he help Julian discover the importance of bathing, studying, and eating something that doesn't consist primarily of concentrated sugar? Will he convince his skeptical love interest (Joey Lauren Adams of "Chasing Amy") that he is worth her time?
If you said "yes," then you know what the second half of the movie is all about, and you've probably figured out that it will come to a predictably teary climax in a courtroom with Sonny trying to convince the judge (not to mention some cynical members of the movie audience) that he is, in fact, the perfect father for young Julian and he is capable of assuming parental responsibility.
It should be noted that, although most of "Big Daddy" is base comedy of the cheapest sort, it does have its moments. Just when the sentiment is becoming unbearably grating, Sandler throws in a joke to lighten the proceedings (at the end of the big courtroom scene, for instance, Sonny makes a forced speech about love to his brusque father, and everyone in the room is so moved they begin calling their fathers on their cell phones to express their love--it's the only truly funny sequence in the whole movie). Sandler also manages to throw in a jab at all those film critics (including this one) who make a ritual of bashing his movies: he has a character say that music critics who didn't like Styx back in the '70s were just "cynical a--holes." Yes, that's right: Sandler apparently considers himself the Styx of the movie business.
For the most part, humor in "Big Daddy" relies on watching Sandler hurt himself or other people, listening to a five-year-old repeat four-letter words, and an endless parade of jokes about Hooters, both the restaurant chain and the female body parts that inspired it. Director Dennis Dugan--who has helmed such comedic drek as "Problem Child" (1990) and "Beverly Hills Ninja" (1997), not to mention Sandler's earlier star vehicle, "Happy Gilmore" (1996)--slaps the movie together with little finesse or creativity. Every joke is a ham-handed smack in the face; nothing is left to the imagination, although it's hard to imagine there was any imagination that went into it in the first place.
But, despite its many faults, "Big Daddy" does have a basic underlying sweetness, and it actually manages to come up with a conclusion that is not entirely what you might expect. This is hardly a case of Sandler growing up (how many of his fans would be disappointed to the point of despair if that ever happened?), but it might be a tentative, if somewhat stumbling, step in another direction.
©1999 James Kendrick