Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
If you should know one thing about me, it’s that I’m both a completionist and a chronologist — meaning that I prefer to start things from the beginning and not stop until I’ve reached the end. And yet, I begin this descent into cinematic madness with a seemingly random data point in the Happy Madison Productions slate.
The Benchwarmers isn’t the best offering, the worst (so far) or even the funniest. Nothing on the surface justifies its existence as the first entry in this series besides a personal one: You see, on one fateful evening in May 2006, I went on the first of many dates after returning home from my freshman year at Ball State University. The details of the night aren’t terribly important, but what does matter is that we capped the night off with a screening of Dennis Dugan’s The Benchwarmers, and four years later, I married the girl from that date. Call me an optimist, but any relationship that begins at such a low point can only have an upward trajectory.
The Benchwarmers marks the 15th entry in the Happy Madison canon, so audiences essentially knew what they were in for by then, especially considering that the production company got its feet wet with the sports-movie genre only a year earlier with the Adam Sandler-led remake of The Longest Yard. And yet, the opening scene features Jon Heder picking his nose, followed by one kid farting directly in the face of another kid. Survey a thousand innocent civilians and you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to predict that. The bad news is that this shtick is The Benchwarmers‘ modus operandi; the good news is that the film is only 85 minutes long (including credits).
Built as a sort of mashup of Revenge of the Nerds and The Sandlot, The Benchwarmers fails at nearly every turn — as a comedy, as a sports movie, as a referendum on inclusion and the long-lasting effects of bullying. Even its third act reveal, in which it’s discovered that Rob Schneider’s Gus was once a bully himself, ends up having little more dramatic weight than an ending of a Full House episode. Not to mention the absurd amount of midget jokes that prevails in the final 20 minutes, which really underscores the message Dugan is attempting to get across.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Schneider, David Spade and Heder — middle-aged men whose careers are a landscaper, video store employee, and paperboy, respectively — as everyday heroes who stand up for the nerdy victims of the ever-threatening jocks of middle America. Also, they’re financed by Jon Lovitz, who is a nerdy multi-billionaire, naturally. The film also features a subplot wherein Nick Swardson (a co-writer with Allen Covert) is an agoraphobe who’s literally afraid of the sun (until the plot requires him not to be) and features supermodel Molly Sims as Schneider’s wife and the horniest woman alive. It’s my suspicion that the latter is the sole reason for the film’s PG-13 rating. Without that albatross around its neck, the film could even potentially work as a harmless kids’ flick.
It’s not just that The Benchwarmers is a bad movie (although it very much is), but the film lacks any kind of self-awareness to have any fun. Sure, the requisite Happy Madison themes prevail throughout: poop/fart jokes, product placement, gay panic, celebrity/athlete cameos, lazy pop culture references and righteous heroes pitted against sneering villains. And there are looser moments where it’s clear the cast was free to improvise, but Dugan seems like he doesn’t know what to do with the hand he’s been dealt. Lovitz especially, who’s particularly gifted at making even the silliest dialogue feel pertinent, has hardly anything fun to contribute, although his line reading of “Is it cat poop or dog poop this time?” is a relative highlight. Tim Meadows, criminally underappreciated during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, is similarly underutilized here as a rival coach. He exists to be puked on. Literally.
If there’s one thing the top brass at Happy Madison try to push in their messaging, it’s that children are pure of heart, adults are clueless, hapless jerks, and the elderly solely exist to spout off delusional one-liners. Though clumsy in its execution, the finale — in which the benchwarmer kids warm the icy hearts of the rival team — is a nice sentiment. It turns out they were only mean to the other kids because of their overbearing coaches, an idea that doesn’t get touched on prior to the final setpiece.
Maybe I’m being too kind. Maybe I’m viewing the film through rose-colored glasses. Maybe I’m grasping at straws. This movie sucks, but any relationship that can survive a crucible like The Benchwarmers owes it at least a little credit.
- The “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: The obvious pick here is MLB Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who actually looks like he’s having fun in his single scene, but I’ll go with the left-field (get it?) casting of Dan Patrick, former ESPN personality and friend to Sandler. He appears in one scene and is given no more than two lines of dialogue. I like Dan Patrick, but this was strange.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. This space will be reserved for a truly bizarre moment that could only exist in a Happy Madison film. This entry goes to the plot point of Lovitz’s character literally commissioning and building a state-of-the-art little league baseball stadium overnight. “Keep it under a billion,” he says. Not that it matters, but the rebuilt Yankee Stadium cost $1.5 billion in 2009, so there’s that.
- The Walkout Test: I know someone that has walked out of more screenings than anyone else on the planet (if you send me an email and are lucky, I might reveal their identity). Each film will be graded on a pass/fail basis on whether or not I believe that person would be able to sit through an entire screening. This film, though it has its gross-out moments, receives a soft Pass.
- At one point, Sims opines about how great it would be to have a New Year’s baby. As an actual New Year’s baby, I can testify that it’s really not as great as it sounds.