Grown Ups 2, one of the least well-received movies of 2013, begins with Adam Sandler’s character Lenny waking up and getting pissed on by a CGI deer. Grown Ups 2, a movie hovering at 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and 20% on Metacritic, builds up to a far too elaborate ’80s-themed costume party that gets the lulz going for the youngsters (Chris Rock as Prince! Sandler as Springsteen!), full-stop panders to nostalgia for moviegoers in their forties, and functions as a slightly sad commentary on the suburban yearning of these aging-out characters.
In between these set pieces, Grown Ups 2, which The New York Times called “pap, plain and simple,” barely maintains a quasi-plot that includes Sandler and friends ganking a school bus from a half-crazed driver, engaging in a mock epic battle over their own masculinity by way of Twilight star Taylor Lautner and his pals, and more than enough old-fashioned but no-less-sincere cultural diversity-celebrating of the Brad Paisley points-for-trying sort.
There is nothing sophisticated about Grown Ups 2′s multitude-filled vision, but Hollywood movies remain so hedged and afraid to alienate that it feels bold to see a movie where middle class white characters and people of color interact in a way that’s reflective of real life and it isn’t made into a big deal. Save for Sandler’s character, a Hollywood agent, the other characters have shockingly regular jobs: Kevin James, tubby, white, dad handsome, runs a body shop; Chris Rock, rail-thin, black, and charming, is a cable guy; David Spade? Well, he’s just a professional creep. Quite simply, these kinds of characters aren’t afforded much attention in movies anymore.
There is a Norman Lear-like approach to race, gender, and sexual preference in Grown Ups 2 that isn’t afraid to go lowest common denominator for some laughs, but at least believes in its rummy liberal values. It also doesn’t ever forget that it’s a big dumb comedy, so it surrounds those values with jokes about how ice cream looks like shit sometimes, and gets retired basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal to pee in a pool. Salma Hayek plays Sandler’s wife, and the fact that she is Mexican–used for cheap jokes about annoying moms, yes–is nevertheless acknowledged. Also addressed in the movie: Sandler, Jewish and dressed like an adult toddler, tells the audience that Hayek is far too attractive (and together) for it to even seem realistic that she would marry him, and that it could only happen in a Hollywood movie like the one you’re watching.
Most movies take that sort of disparity in looks (and the implicit sexism of mainstream movie casting) for granted. There’s certainly no good reason why Grown Ups 2 needs to call attention to that, but it does. The movie is full of moments that don’t need to be there like that. Character actors are allowed to walk away with the movie for minutes at a time; David Spade’s character deals with the reality that he’s a deadbeat dad; the Grown Ups’ children are going through the suckfest that is middle school and there’s an Apatow-ian cold harsh reality to it; Taylor Lautner, here playing a frat boy (and channeling blank-faced and beleaguered basketball bro Kris Humphries, it seems) is the movie’s antagonist. Handsome frat dudes are villains in this movie! Think about that!
Most notably, there is a moment when Sandler’s character confronts a bully from high school, played by pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. It puts more of a face to a cruel meathead than it needs to, and then the character hammily mentions that he’s got family serving in the Iraq War. Now, it’s done with all the subtlety of a Tyler Perry movie (Grown Ups 2 is just a Tyler Perry movie aimed at white people), but here’s a gleefully dumb comedy going out of its way to remind viewers in for a beyond-mindless romp that we’re fighting a war, and the kinds of jerks that beat you up in high school are now kept up late at night worrying about their family over there.
Tellingly, Grown Ups 2 is the first Adam Sandler movie to receive a sequel. And so, accusations of cash-in cynicism here seem a bit unwarranted. These are characters Sandler wanted to investigate more thoroughly. But he also wanted to have a real-not-real deer plucked from the uncanny valley piss in his face and run off in a bra because that shit’s funny. Grown Ups 2 is an absolutely insane movie. But it is not the worst movie of the year. It’s a low-key message movie that wildly oscillates between middle-aged dad-bro camaraderie (made tangible by the actors’ comfort with one another), and increasingly surreal gross-out gags. Think John Cassavetes’ Husbands meets Tom Green’s Freddie Got Fingered with twice the number of excretory jokes set in some idyllic version of Obama’s America, and you’re getting there. That seems like something to celebrate.