I spent the 90-something minutes of Bedtime Stories furiously scribbling notes in the dark, desperate not to miss the particularly annoying details of its inanity, and, alternately, shaking my head, wondering what the hell I was doing there, furious with myself for breaking my own self-imposed embargo on Adam Sandler movies.
Cruelly, I’d almost been fooled earlier this year by Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, which was silly but not stupid, and — even better — was genuinely sweet. Bedtime Stories is, of course, in the more typical Sandler vein I don’t mind goofy and I don’t even mind crude, but I do mind phony in a movie that wants to make us feel something, as this one apparently does. That’s the most unforgivable thing for a movie to do: try to gin up emotion that it cannot come by honestly.
So it annoys me that Stories — which is clearly aimed at actual six-year-olds, and not Sandler’s more typical audience of adults who never matured beyond a grade-school mentality — falls back on jokes about toilets and stinky feet and multiple references to “underpants,” because I think even children’s movies should be better than that. I get that that’s what makes kids laugh, but it’s too easy. And that’s what really pisses me off about movies like Stories (frankly, it’s what pisses me off about much of the dreck that Hollywood forces on us). It’s cheap and lazy and obvious. It’s just good enough, for really forgiving values of “good enough,” when it’s really not that hard to be smarter and cleverer and wiser about it without sacrificing anything Sandler-esque about it, if that’s the element that’s perceived to be marketable about it.
I’m not talking about turning a movie like Bedtime Stories into high art or even into something that I would enjoy myself. I just would like for it to feel magical where it’s supposed to be magical, for it to make a tiny bit of sense where it needs to make sense, and for it to actually earn the tiny bit of sentiment it wants us to feel. It wouldn’t increase the FX budget, it wouldn’t expand the running time. It would mean, however, asking the highly paid screenwriters — Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy — who are supposedly paid so well because they’re more inventive and more creative than other people, to actually do their jobs and demonstrate a smidgen of inventiveness and creativity.
It’s easier, though, to paid in bright colors with broad brushstrokes, and if you can get away with that, why bother taxing your brain? And that’s how we get Sandler’s (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Reign Over Me) hotel handyman Skeeter Bronson — for that abomination of a name alone, the screenwriters’ fees should be revoked — who appears to be both brilliant and retarded at the same time (though not, of course, in an intriguing, metaphoric Being There kind of way, just a “we’re too lazy to give him an actual personality” kind of way). We have Skeeter’s sister, Wendy (Courtney Cox: Barnyard, The Longest Yard), who, even though her brother has not seen her children in four years, thinks it wise to leave said children with that brother for a week while she heads to another city for a job hunt. Wendy didn’t let the kids see their uncle because she thought, apparently, that Skeeter was a bad influence on the kids… except at the end of the film, Wendy reveals that she thought it would be good for the kids to be around their uncle for a while.
There’s no reason at all for any of this nonsense, except that Wendy being a bitch lets the screenwriters take a couple of cheap swipes at her. Which they wouldn’t need to do if she wasn’t a bitch, which she doesn’t need to be because it has nothing to do with the larger thrust of the story, which is that while Wendy is away and Skeeter is watching the kids, the bedtime stories they tell each night appear to come true the next day. Skeeter, of course, catches on to this right away and starts to try to engineer the stories to his benefit, throwing in stuff about free Ferraris and dates with the Paris Hilton-esque skank (Teresa Palmer: December Boys) who’s the daughter of the man who owns the fancy hotel where Skeeter works. (We know she’s a skank because she’s clearly meant to be Paris Hilton, not because she has anything resembling motivations or personality of her own — that would have required, you know, the slightest bit of inventiveness and creativity on the part of the writers. She’s just “hot,” and that’s all the reason we need for Skeeter’s interest in her.) Things backfire on Skeeter, of course, because, as I said, he’s apparently mentally feeble.
How do the stories come true? Well, it’s magic. How do we know it’s magic? Because the stories come true (sort of). Magic doesn’t need an explanation, necessarily, but it should feel magical, and we can blame the highly-paid-because-he’s-presumably-inventive-and-creative director Adam Shankman (Hairspray, Cheaper by the Dozen 2) for the fact that it doesn’t. Of course, the orchestral score soars as it starts raining gumballs in Los Angeles — almost exactly like is described by the interjections of one of the kids during storytime — but that can’t create magic where none exists.
Did I mention the completely unromantic “romantic” subplot between Skeeter and Wendy’s friend Jill (Keri Russell: August Rush, Waitress)? They hate each other until, suddenly, they don’t. Did I mention the pointless animosity between Skeeter and the putative villains, Guy Pearce’s (Traitor, Factory Girl) hotel manager and his sidekick, Lucy Lawless (Battlestar Galactica)? They’re the villains because Skeeter hates them, and he hates them because they’re the villains. It wouldn’t have taken any more screen time for either of these relationships to demonstrate some sort of something that would justify the emotions the characters are meant to feel and the emotions that we’re meant to feel in response to them. It would have taken, however, perhaps a few more minutes on the part of the writers to, you know, creatively invent that something.
I’m raging against Bedtime Stories, but I’m really raging against every movie like this, that cheats, that lies, that takes the absolute easiest route to get where it’s going. And I’m raging against audiences that let movies get away with this. If we demanded more, Hollywood would have to give it to us if they wanted our money. But we don’t, and we won’t this time. Bedtime Stories will be a big hit, because people are satisfied, for reasons I don’t understand, with “just barely good enough,” and I’ll go back to banging my head against a wall.