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 as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming 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 I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
If you don’t have children, you would be shocked at the sheer volume of dispensable, slapped-together content aimed at them that is brought forth into the world. The rise of streaming surely has contributed to this, but every year more and more family films are released either in theaters (briefly) or directly to Video On Demand. For example, did you know there was a Woody Woodpecker film released in 2017 starring Timothy Omundson from Psych? Of course you didn’t. Neither should you. It’s terrible.
That’s not to say that Disney’s collaboration with Happy Madison, 2008’s Bedtime Stories, was regarded at the time as disposable fluff. The film was released on Christmas Day and grossed over $200 million at the worldwide box office. Not to mention the Sandler factor, who was still a bankable movie star for American audiences. But in the pantheon of live-action Disney films (of the non-Marvel and non-animated-film-remake subcategory), Bedtime Stories almost feels like a forgotten relic.
Does the film deserve that label? Yes and no. Having never seen this film before, I was curious how much of the Happy Madison sensibilities would come through after the rigorous (for lack of a better word) censorship at the House of Mouse. After all, few of the shenanigans that are front and center in the Happy Madison films — as childish as many of them are — could be labeled as family-friendly. Much like Click, Bedtime Stories allows Adam Sandler to run wild and do his thing while still retaining the patented Disney warm-and-fuzzies that have long been synonymous with the brand.
When you really think about it, it’s hard to believe Happy Madison signed on to produce the film in the first place (aside from the near-guarantee of a big payday). Nearly 10 years into Sandler’s grand experiment, the company had established a fairly clear identity as the go-to place for mainstream, sorta in-your-face comedy aimed squarely at the 18-to-49-year-old American demographic. To make a kid-centric film would not only confuse die-hard fans but deprive those fans of what they thought they were in for once they bought a ticket. But again, the film made $200 million worldwide, so what do I know?
When I was much younger and (presumably) before I knew any better, I loved Sandler’s goofy shtick as he bounced around and did whatever he could for a laugh. I was always glued to the screen whenever his classic Saturday Night Live skits would air. Sandler makes perfect sense as a children’s movie star because of his outsized onscreen personality, even after he aged up and toned down his antics. Not to mention his frequent roles as grown men refusing to grow up; what better actor is there for kids to find relatable?
Children’s films are generally judged by a different set of standards, as their plots are less concerned with internal honesty as they are with spectacle. The same can be said for Bedtime Stories, as the main draw are Sandler’s various titular fantastical tales. Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, the son of a deceased hotelier, who has to invent outlandish fables for his niece and nephew each night. Bronson discovers rather quickly that the unbelievable elements that the children dream up from the stories begin to come true, so he manipulates them in order to get the real-world outcome he wants. The bedtime stories provide some nice semi-meta jabs at Sandler’s expense regarding narrative structure and nuance in storytelling, courtesy of a neutered Russell Brand (literally coming just months after his polar opposite role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). The main prize Skeeter is after is the ownership of the newest hotel location, run by Mr. Nottingham (the late Richard Griffiths), which he must compete for against his rival, Kendall Duncan (Guy Pearce). Of course, this wouldn’t be a Happy Madison film without a tacked-on romantic subplot, and this week’s victim is Keri Russell, who’s paired with Skeeter because they are two good-looking people, and … well, that’s about it.
Anyway, the fantasy sequences are obvious fodder for Sandler to play to the crowd, and the rest of the cast gets to have a little fun as well. Pearce is the clear winner here (hey, I’ve heard he’s pretty good!), as he amps up the silliness to match the energy of the film. Pearce could have easily cashed in his performance as an actor who’s clearly over-qualified for a film of this caliber. It’s always refreshing to see a performer giving their all — just watch his climactic musical number if you need evidence — when the film doesn’t necessarily require them to do so.
Each of the bedtime stories produce some great-looking sets with their own elaborate costumes, as Sandler & Co. are transported to a medieval castle, a Wild West shootout and a Star Wars-esque throne room. It’s hard to imagine Happy Madison pulling off the same level of quality or detail without Disney’s backing. The conceit of Sandler’s yarns coming to life is an interesting premise, but the writers missed the mark to create a real sense of eccentricity. More often than not, they end up simply as an excuse to get actors to dance around and act silly.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell if Bedtime Stories truly resonates with audiences or if it can be tossed off into the ever-mounting library of kids’ films. Roger Ebert noted at the top of his review that the film had the broad appeal to “kids of all ages.” However, to get a real sense of popular taste, we can turn to the ever-reliable Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards, which in 2009 not only snubbed Sandler for Favorite Movie Actor (losing to Will Smith in Hancock), and Bedtime Stories as Favorite Movie in favor of High School Musical 3: Senior Year.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Jonathan Pryce, one of the two popes himself, opens the film as Sandler’s father, before he’s brutally mutilated off-screen (I assume).
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. At this point, I’ll be more surprised if Rob Schneider were to show up as a white character than if he were another terrible approximation of a non-white character.
- Fart Joke Counter: It sounds like there’s a comical fart noise coming from Sandler’s truck at one point when he starts it up, but I could be mistaken. But there is definitely a fart noise coming from a guinea pig at the end. That is a sentence I never thought I would have to type in my entire life.
- The Walkout Test: This one’s an easy pass, and I endorse it!
- NEXT TIME: Kevin James enters the Happy Madison crucible in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.