DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Big Daddy, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Next Best Thing, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds

Title: Big Daddy

Release Date:  1999

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 91  min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:   Columbia

Director; Writer: Dennis Dugan    wr. Steve Franks

Producer: Sidney Ganis

Cast:    Adam Sandler


Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:   parenting (involuntary)


 Movie Review: Big Daddy (1999)

Starring: Adam Sandler; Columbia Pictures; 91 Minutes; PG-13; 8.5/10

            Well, when the Columbia Pictures Statute of Liberty opens up with the ascending musical scales, the screen is not Panavision: apparently, despite it's box office success, the producers want this to play easily on any VCR. It's just an ordinary comedy.

            Goofball, cornball, shapeless Adam Sandler makes the perfect anti-hero, the perfect chickeman (buck-buck), too unprepossessing for clay feet. In the language of Rado Suhl (my own Army days), he's no ocelot. Compare him to the more "refined" Jim Carrey, who nevertheless points his butt (clothed) at the audience in the twilight-zonish The Truman Show.

            He's barely aware that he's got social problems. Temporarily rich from a settlement after his foot gets run over (why wasn't it amputated??), the best job he can get is toll-taker. Of course, he has trouble keeping "women." He just doesn't understand that his behavior, his whole being, is unacceptable to most other people. He doesn't get social graces.

            When a five-year old gets left at his apartment, he takes to the kid as if he were a puppy dog. One could say that he redeems his manhood by becoming a Daddy (well, he's not one of David Skinner's Hairless Men [Weekly Standard, June 21, 1999] but he's no gay Daddy-fantasy either). He's so devoted to the kid, who makes him needed, George Gilder-wise. The kid wets the bed (enuresis) big time, and he covers it up with newspapers, since the boss won't let you read them at work. The kid disco-dances to a Teletubby (the Jerry Falwell kind), and suddenly vomits on-camera, undigested food soured on his stomach showing well. Big Daddy teaches him bad, near-sociopathic habits, like urinating in public (New York City Soho streets) and tripping up skateboarders and rollerbladers. The kid even copies these habits in kindergarten.

            Well, the kid redeems himself a bit in the school play about The American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and Sandler already feels good about himself. The final custody hearing is a bit contrived and unconvincing; what Big Daddy needed was not so much parental responsibility but just a notion of self-worth.

            There is a cute little gay male couple (very monogamous) who provides him all the moral support he needs.

            I wonder if Miss Richfield will parody this one. Family values?? Gay 90's, are you listening?


            There is a newer "romantic comedy" about daddyhood: The Next Best Thing, from Paramount (1999), 110 Minutes, rated "R," and, again, just a regular movie (no Panavision), starring Madonna, Rupert Everett, Lynn Redgrave, Stacy Edwards, Malcolm Stumpf, and Benjamin Bratt.  And it picks up on the gay-parenting "controversy."  The Everett character, a gardener (reminds one of Brendan Fraser in Gods and Monsters) who hangs around the rich.  His Brit accent gets him perceived as just a big "faggoty"; the stereotypes (apparently his thorax and arms look waxed) don't help (his boyfriends, especially the cardiologist, look a lot more virile).  Anyway, "Madonna" actually believes he is the father of her son after an accidental one-night July 4th fling. And he really takes to being a Daddy. His mother lectures him in his car on how he will grow up when he has someone to look after before himself; fatherhood does that to men, and even from a moral perspective.  Well, he's bored with the drugs, the parties and easy sex, and scared about the AIDS around him (a friend has died of "pneumonia"). Some of his friends, especially the doctor, though, may have aesthetic, Oscar Wilde style interests that are beyond him.  But he is a great dad.  The movie doesn't show him around the kid as a newborn baby, or going through the terrible two's. The five year old comes across as a young adult, even to reading story books ("children's literature") upside down.

            The courtroom scene and custody battle do indeed pick up on the biological parent issue, and the prejudice against the idea that gay men can really be good fathers. (In a manner resembling the Bottoms case in Virginia, Madonna's fattish lawyer asks him about doing oral sex in front of kids). Of course, anyone concerned about gay parents should get a hold of Ken Morgen's book Getting Simon (Bramble, 1996).  The "straight" investment banker (Benjamin Bratt) has to give up a potential partnership and relocation to go through with his marriage so that even Madonna (under court order not to leave California) can keep her kid. These strictures really can happen.

            The Next Best Thing (real human being kids and not dogs, and a real father rather than a biological one) reminds one of the 1979 film  Kramer v. Kramer, (Columbia, dir. Robert Benton, 105 min, PG) when the protagonist (Dustin Hoffman) gets taken out to lunch to get fired (a not uncommon technique), and then has to get a good job as an architect the day before Christmas to keep his son. He sells himself hard in the interview. Or, how about Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby (1987)?

            All of this brings up a moral question that bothers me:  is there some kind of obligation to prove that one can take care of someone else besides oneself before one set's one's priorities?  Could it be enforced informally in a libertarian society?  Could the custodial care and nursing home situation become so dire that eventually there are even some legal pressures on adult children without other dependents not to move far from parents?    

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Columbia/Overbrook/Escape Artist, dir. Gabriele Muccino, wr. Steve Conrad, 118 min, PG-13). In my first book, I included the phrase from the Declaration of Independence in my proposed constitutional amendment (text here) from Chapter 6 of my first book.  Christ Gardner (a most charismatic Will Smith), when carting his five-year-old son (Jaden Smith) around San Francisco, complains when he sees the Old English (is it that?) spelling, and he shows how smart he is when he solves a 3x3 Rubik Cube in the cab when he is trying to impress a Dean Wittier executive. 

Gardner is a salesman. This is 1981, just after Reagan got in, and his job sounds cheesy. He buys and resells these high density bone scanners to doctors and carries them around on the bus. He actually buys them out of his own pocket and keeps them in his apartment. I don't know if medical equipment can really be sold this way. I doubt it; manufacturer's representatives generally don't do that, although they do set up sales shows and they do visit all of their accounts. (That was a good business back in the 50s and 60s.)  At least twice Gardner loses samples, once when a hippy asked to watch it steals it, and another time it gets clipped on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), again to wind up in an Elysian field with a hippy who thinks it is a time machine. (It looks like an early PC, almost like a TRS-80). He gets a chance to become an unpaid intern at the brokerage, and if he gets through boot camp schmoozing clients and kissing a-- with the bosses, he has a 1 in 20 chance at the good life as a broker. They look so happy!

In the meantime, he loses his marriage and becomes homeless. In the view of external society, he is a failure as a "Mensch" because he can't provide for his family in competition with other men. The film does not explain how a brilliant man wound up this way. Is it discrimination because he is black? Is it because he had a kid before he finished his education? Is there some kind of "beautiful mind" mental illness? The latter is not likely, but the first two pretty much would tell it. The film does pose the problem of family values in our culture -- that we expect men to define themselves most of all by being able to compete with other men to prove that their genes are superior.  The hidden or implicit message is a bit offputting: he who cannot compete with other men should not reproduce himself.

It's ironic that the film is in gay San Francisco. Although homosexuality is never mentioned, the implicit meaning is that gay men simply cheat the system by outflanking the whole test of manhood. It doesn't matter if you father children at all if you have the talent to do "other things" that can range into a great many cultural activities (not just hairdressing). The movie takes place in the year that "GRID" (later AIDS) would first be recognized. In one scene, Gardner sells his blood to make ends meet, something gay men would soon be barred from doing.

The pandering that Gardner has to do to sell is glaring, and it seems laughable that this should be acceptable business practice, what you have to do to "make it." He shaves time at work by not lifting up the phone cradle and by not drinking water to prevent the bathroom breaks, and becomes the top seller. But he has to race to get in line on Mission St. for the homeless shelter. I do recall an experience in 2003 working as a debt collector, when we were expected to attempt 175 calls (with 40 contacts) in an 8 hour day, and you did have to work up to the pace. You would learn to push quickly when the phone privacy guard came on and not lift the receiver. I also remember that the young man who sat next to me was the top earner in the group, without ever abusing debtors or pushing anyone. He simply focused on the quality of calls and kept good track of the best "prospects." Shouldn't sales really work that way?

When Gardner finally gets hired, we feel that he has indeed become "The Apprentice." Gardner would go on to form a brokerage firm himself in 1987 (the year of the crash -- I was in San Francisco the day of the 1987 crash and watched the ticker the next day), and would achieve enormous financial success by the 1990s. This is a true story, if a bit of a movie making hyperbole. The screenplay itself is your classic linear formulaic cliffhanger with all of the crisis points, resolutions and payoffs.

The film is full widescreen (like Cinemascope), and to good effect. In one overhead shot, Gardner as his son are shown sprawled on a BART bathroom floor, lengthwise, covered with toilet paper. filling the screen with blue and white. This is a film were negative sounding visual concepts become art.

Seven Pounds (2008, Columbia / Overbrook / Escape Artists / Relativity, dir. Gabriele Muccino, wr. Grant Neoporte). Will Smith plays a man in the last act of his life, planning a suicide (with the help of ice and box jellyfish) to give his organs away. Rosario Dawson is a heart recipient and provides his progeny. Blogger.



Related reviews: Raising Helen and Summerland


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