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.

This week, we continue Happy Valley with another Very Special Episode, featuring a roundtable discussion with Greg Lindberg (host of the Fresh Questions? Air podcast and contributor to Midwest Film Journal). Today, we’re cliff-diving — naked — into the depths of cinematic hell that is Grown Ups 2.

Ben Sears: Greg, thanks very much for joining me on this oversized-tire ride through what is surely the nadir of many formidable actors’ careers. First, tell me a little about your background with Adam Sandler and Happy Madison films in general. Were you ever a fan of his? Had you seen the film previously, or its prequel? Grown Ups 2 has such a notorious reputation, even amongst the rest of the filth that is Happy Madison, so tell me what drew you to a discussion on this film in particular.

Greg Lindberg: When I was a kid, I was a pretty big Saturday Night Live fan, and I remember seeing Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore in the theater with my dad. Aside from Dumb & Dumber, those were huge for me as a little comedy nerd. I followed Sandler closely throughout the 1990s (I even liked Little Nicky), and then I stopped watching his films sometime after Click although I did see You Don’t Mess With The Zohan and loved it. Punch Drunk Love is also one of my favorite movies.

In the last couple of years, I’ve revisited the Sandler films I’ve missed in the last two decades and other Happy Madison films. I’ve been surprised by a lot of things I found funny in films like Jack & Jill, but also there are also plenty of things that just didn’t age well. I’ve wanted to watch Grown Ups 2 for a while now after hearing about the clip of Shaquille O’Neal throwing a guy over a roof from the Doughboys podcast. Also, after comedian Tom Scharpling shared his Grown Ups 3 script, it sparked my interest even more.

BS: I think your experience with Sandler has been fairly universal, so I understand that. And I would agree that, as terrible as films like Jack and Jill are, there are still flashes of humor to be found. Even the original Grown Ups “worked” as a loose hangout comedy and at least had an arc it could revolve around in the gang’s childhood coach dying. Grown Ups 2, however, never even tries to justify its existence. Whatever narrative threads it tries to weave between its lame scenes are inconsequential and never maintain any stakes of any importance. And sometimes that’s fine! I don’t mind the occasional plotless comedy as long as the jokes are good enough and the cast works well enough together, or the characters are likable enough. Grown Ups 2 has none of those things. Were you able to find any bright spots in this deer piss-soaked misadventure? Why do you think Sandler and company decided to make this sequel beyond the possibility of another huge payday?

GL: Wow, yes, that is a good summation of this film. I did see the first one long ago, and though it I didn’t like it, there was a loose camping plot. Grown Ups 2 is definitely a hangout movie, but that is also a difficult way to describe the movie, as most Sandler movies are hangout films by design. The whole time here, I was looking for a plot. It seems like the main arc is about Sandler’s character not wanting to have another kid, which isn’t enough for an entire movie. He wants to do the same things he did in high school with his friends, refusing to grow up. I mean, there’s something there if you dig deep enough, but it’s probably not worth the excavation. I honestly did laugh out loud at the beginning with the deer peeing on the son in the shower. I think that probably reveals an immature side of me and the intended audience of the film. As the movie goes on, I laughed at other bits. But a lot of it is just how pervy everyone is. I especially felt deflated with the constant jokes of a woman bodybuilder being a man. I don’t know. In the last few weeks, I’ve watched Wild Hogs and Eurotrip. I think this movie may have broken my brain. 

BS: From everything I’ve read, it seems like you’re not among the minority of those whose brains were broken by this film. I do want to harp on the egregious pervy-ness on display throughout this film, though. Nearly every female character is either shrewd, sex-obsessed, insane, someone to be feared or some combination of the above. There’s literally a handful of scenes that exist for the men in the audience to leer at the cast of female characters (all wearing low-cut, revealing outfits, of course). We get it, you’re horny teenagers in the bodies of grown men, but at least have the decency to make those moments surprising. And the running gag of the female bodybuilder secretly being a man is just plain crude. I would love to get the thoughts of any of the female actresses and why they signed up for a film with this kind of script.

GL: Absolutely. Jon Lovitz technically plays the same pervy creep he has in many other Happy Madison films, but in this one it’s just gross. Salma Hayek, Maya Rudolph and Maria Bello are all great, but they are not given much to do here. It’s great to see Cheri Oteri in something as well, but her side story is pointless. Ellen Cleghorne’s appearance is funny. Overall, there’s no reason why there couldn’t have been a better balance of all these talents. I did know about the car wash scene featuring the Lonely Island and other SNL cast members. It’s a very weird scene that is somewhat funny. But it also straddles this line of being subversive for a Happy Madison film while also being fairly homophobic with Kevin James’ discomfort of seeing men’s crotches used as sponges. I’m interested in what you thought about that scene as well. 

BS: The car wash scene stood out to me, not only because it was the funniest of the film (to me), but because it’s almost emblematic of nearly every Happy Madison film: You know the punchline to the joke as soon as it’s established, but it still finds a way to be relatively funny. At least Samberg, et al managed to escape the film with their dignity intact. But Greg, this film cost $80 million to make. Eighty. Million. Dollars. Where do you suppose the bulk of the budget went? It certainly didn’t go to the visual effects department because what little digital trickery is involved is almost 1995-Jumanji-level bad. And on a related note, the film grossed $246 million worldwide, making it Sandler’s second-most successful film (after Grown Ups). I can understand the first film’s success as a curiosity piece for American families, but why do you think the sequel made so much money, especially after the terrible reviews of the first film and Sandler’s floundering reputation? Should there be a Warren Commission-style investigation into how Happy Madison was able to dupe the movie-going public so successfully?

GL: Wow. That is astounding. I looked up other Happy Madison films, and The Do-Over and Blended cost $40 million each and those are both location-heavy. So, yeah, why did this cost $80 million? The movie looks like it cost $10 million, so I can only assume they gave the actors nice paychecks to do this. I suppose there are some dumb stunts like the tire rolling, but it shouldn’t be that high! My theory on why it made so much boils down to two factors: 1) It came out in the middle of July 2013 with not many other big films surrounding it — at least nothing palpable for general audiences with families. 2) Taylor Lautner. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 came out less than a year before Grown Ups 2, and perhaps that strange cultural phenomenon still persisted. The whole subplot or whatever it is with Lautner and his fraternity is bizarre. It really seems to only be there as a vehicle for him.

BS: I think your theory on the dearth of summer blockbusters is pretty spot-on: the top five films of Grown Ups 2‘s opening weekend were Despicable Me 2, Pacific Rim, The Heat and The Lone Ranger, with this film coming in second place. Even the following two weekends were pretty forgettable. I had completely forgotten Lautner was part of this movie before he appeared, and his part feels like yet another missed opportunity. I mean, not once does Lautner take his shirt off, which is the main thing people saw his movies for! It feels like Sandler and crew just wanted to skate by on his name recognition. Grown Ups was widely seen as a contemptuous piece of filmmaking from Sandler, actively working to fool the poor schmucks that would pay their hard-earned money to watch a bunch of guys lazily prance their way through a lakeside vacation. I had my reservations about saying that Sandler actively hated his audience with the first film, but it’s hard to argue against that rationale for making Grown Ups 2, especially given the utter lack of imagination for the script. Would you agree? I feel like Grown Ups 2 stands as such a monolith amongst Sandler’s career, and not in a good way. The first sequel of his career came at the lowest point of his career — and the fact that it was a sequel to one of his most critically reviled films really says something about his mindset and what he values. What do you think the legacy of Grown Ups 2 is, in the long run? Do you think there’s any way Sandler — or anybody else involved — can rid themselves of the stink of the film?

GL: For the most part, I am a Sandler apologist. But it is impossible to defend this film. I could see how maybe some people might like it for a few funny parts, but when comparing it to something like The Waterboy, the inconsistency in humor is confounding. I absolutely understand the frustration people have with Sandler, especially cinephiles who know his potential. The same goes for many other actors involved in Grown Ups 2. It’s interesting that after the horrendous reviews but huge box-office return of Grown Ups, Sandler took two roles in semi-serious, non-Happy Madison films: The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children. Both of those stunk, so he sort of reset back to the ol’ Happy Madison scam after that. Netflix films like The Ridiculous 6 and Hubie Halloween are basically like Grown Ups sequels but with Western and Halloween skins, respectively. It’s hard to know how successful those films are because Netflix doesn’t release numbers, but they love to claim films like Murder Mystery as massive successes. To answer your question, I think history will look kindly on Sandler as well as Chris Rock, Hayek, Steve Buscemi and several others who participated in this madness. When it comes down to it, there are movie stars with more stinkers that are still beloved (looking at you, Nic Cage!). So I think Grown Ups 2 will either remain a joke, like with the Grown Ups 3 script, or just be forgotten in the pantheon of stink. However, David Spade, James and Nick Swardson may never be able to wash off that stink. One thing I do hope Happy Madison does more of going forward is let new people into the Happy Madison group, especially more women. Last year’s The Wrong Missy might not have been the funniest or most memorable, but it introduced a whole new audience to the amazing Lauren Lapkus, and Spade took the backseat to her as the star. I think Happy. Madison should move more in that type of direction. 

BS: I agree that this film should remain a death knell for many involved, but stars like Swardson and Spade — and even Sandler — surely know that they will always have a home to return to in the Happy Madison family. It is indeed incredibly frustrating to know that Sandler and his friends are capable of performances — like Sandler in Uncut Gems or The Meyerowitz Stories, or James in Becky — while still churning out shlock like this. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout this project, it’s that there aren’t as many outright duds as there would initially appear. Maybe it’s a cynical way of looking at things, but this film represents, to me, the results of unchecked power and influence amongst the Happy Madison brass. Who could say no to Sandler when he’s financing his own projects, co-writing his own scripts and getting his good buddy to direct? Sandler is far from the first celebrity to finance his own films, but few have done so in such a hubristic manner. If there’s one way of looking at Grown Ups 2 optimistically, it’s that it is truly hard to imagine any worse films coming along before the end of this project and that this is the last Dennis Dugan film that I’ll ever have to watch. (Fingers crossed.) And by seeing this film, we’re all truly Grown Ups, too. Greg, thanks very much for joining me on this discussion. I apologize again for breaking your brain, but not to worry: Midwest Film Journal will reimburse you for any therapy expenses incurred as a result of this film.

  • “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: The list of cameos is almost as long as the list of main actors this week, including “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Cleghorne (formerly of Saturday Night Live), Patrick Schwarzenegger, Aly Michalka and a near-wordless appearance from David Henrie (Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place). In a wise decision, Chris Hardwick had a cameo that was scrapped in the final cut. However, this week I’m giving it to the collective of Andy Samberg, Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Will Forte, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer and Paul Brittain as the aforementioned male cheerleaders. Imagine how different this movie would be if the rest of the cast put in half as much effort as they did.
  • Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: As previously established, Happy Madison films are shameless in their product placement, and this film features an extended scene in a Kmart. Already struggling from financial failure in 2013, the retail store would continue to spiral into irrelevance shortly after Grown Ups 2 was released. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Fart Joke Counter: For a while, I thought this segment was going to become obsolete, but the farts come back with a vengeance this week — with five total.
  • The Walkout Test: Absolute fail, and I’d be walking out right there with them.
  • NEXT TIME: Happy Madison goes international as Sandler reunites with Drew Barrymore again in Blended.