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.

Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Kevin James and Chris Rock are naturally funny people. Their years in the entertainment industry before their appearances in Happy Madison films is proof enough. I wholeheartedly believe that the five comedians and actors are genuinely good friends and like to hang out together when the cameras are not rolling. On paper, the concept of putting the five of them together on film sounds great. And yet the end result of 2010’s Grown Ups is an unmitigated mess.

Would I watch a film where Sandler and his crew simply hang out and crack jokes at each other’s expense? Absolutely. The film is populated with plenty of moments where the actors reflexively crack and laugh at a line, and director Dennis Dugan wisely keeps those moments in to remind the audience that those involved are, at least, having fun. Indeed, the best moments of the film come when Sandler, Spade, Rock, James and Schneider are sitting around and riffing on whatever constitutes as a plot development.

Grown Ups feels like a greatest-hits collection of nearly every film we’ve encountered so far, except the “hits” in question aren’t so great. Virtually every stock character type that Happy Madison is known for plays a role throughout the film: Horny Single Guy, Black Guy, Hippie Weirdo Guy, Kevin James, Angry Guy Holding a Grudge For No Reason and Saintly Dad (Sandler, of course), to name a few. And that’s not even mentioning their respective significant others — played by Maya Rudolph, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello and Joyce Van Patten — or their generic children. If that sounds to you like too many characters to stuff into a 102-minute comedy and one lakeside cabin, you’re not wrong.

Grown Ups works best when it plays fast and loose with the plot and worst when it attempts to inject any type of dramatic stakes or emotional development. Take the infamous opening scene for example, in which Sandler’s daughter crashes his car in an attempt to drive to heaven: the scene falls flat not only because of its inherent corniness but because we have literally just met the character. Then there’s the obligatory scene in the third act where each character does their best to turn the film into an episode of Full House. We don’t care about these characters, much less their personal growth.

Not only is the film populated by the most basic character types but the jokes never deviate from what audiences have come to expect from the production company. Gay panic, racial humor, feminized men, lazy pratfalls, grown men ogling scantily-clad women and plenty of “kids say the darndest things”-level cuteness all constitute the bulk of the film’s humor. All of this resides against the backdrop of an absurd dosage of “back in my day” nostalgia, wherein Sandler and the gang lament how great they were when they were younger, and how rotten kids are today. One could easily make a drinking game out of the number of times some variation of “when we were kids” is uttered.

Grown Ups remains the highest grossing film of the entire Happy Madison canon, raking in an astonishing $271 million worldwide, with nearly half coming from overseas(!). To reward his co-stars, Adam Sandler reportedly purchased brand-new Maseratis for James, Rock, Schneider, and Spade (no word on what he got his female co-stars). And yet the film was critically reviled upon its release; it remains one of the worst-rated HM films on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in at a whopping 10%, which is just a hair worse than The Benchwarmers and even I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Critics not only disliked the film but posited that Sandler & Co. made the film with the conscious intention to dupe audiences naïve enough to see it. In his review, Rick Groen derided the film, and its cast, as actively hostile to the poor schmucks that would shell out their hard-earned money to see such nonsense. As optimistic as I try to be, it’s hard not to view Grown Ups so cynically, with actors that are hardly challenging themselves and a script that feels like it was scribbled together on the plane ride over to Massachusetts (where the film was shot).

So what can explain the film’s popularity despite its overwhelmingly negative critical reception? Grown Ups was released amidst a summer full of instantly forgettable remakes, sequels and adaptations that nobody asked for, like Toy Story 3 (a film that Grown Ups never stood a chance at besting), The Karate Kid, The A-Team and Shrek Forever After. Faced with such middling choices, it’s somewhat more understandable why audiences flocked to see Sandler & Co. flounder their way through their latest misadventures.

The sting of the film hurts even more when considering that it comes on the heels of Sandler’s well-received commitment in 2009’s Funny People. It was disheartening to see Sandler praised for his willingness to portray a version of himself that was tired and ashamed of the artless shlock that he put out into the world, only to throw that goodwill out the window by shlubbing his way through a glorified vacation with his buddies. The disappointment came because it was clear that Sandler could do better, but we had no idea how much worse it would get.

  • “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: This is not the first appearance of Steve Buscemi in this series and won’t be the last. I just feel the need to point out that, when Grown Ups was released, Buscemi was on the cusp of doing the best work of his career in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Here, he’s just another warm body — in a body cast, no less — to be used for a few one-note jokes.
  • Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: It’s never explicitly explained why the group of wives show up wearing homemade cheerleader costumes, how they did so, or even who made their fabrics.
  • Fart Joke Counter: After a fairly quiet run, the farts are back with a vengeance this week, with two very audible, very supposedly funny farts.
  • The Walkout Test: This one’s another easy pass, despite all the general ogling of women.
  • NEXT TIME: Pizza Hut, Hilton Hotels and the Hawaii Tourism Board present Just Go With It.