“That’s My Boy” begins with a felony being committed, but the movie itself is only a serious misdemeanor. Film critics share a mutually understood sense of dread every time we are forced to see the latest of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison productions, which are all ceaseless assaults on the good sensibilities of those who enjoy a little wit with their humor. As a result, one must adjust his or her scoring system when evaluating a Sandler film; instead of four stars, five stars, 10 points, or letter grades, one only needs two options: Flat-Out Abomination and Could Have Been Worse.
It was to my slight surprise and relative relief that “That’s My Boy” qualifies as Could Have Been Worse. Dennis Dugan, the usual director of Sandler’s atrocities, has been replaced by Sean Anders, who handles the material better than Dugan has since 1996’s “Happy Gilmore.” Anders (whose previous film was the 2008 road romp “Sex Drive”) sets a tone that is more crass than gross, an infinitely more tolerable approach. Unfortunately, Sandler seems to be insanely loyal to his friends and colleagues, so the chance that Anders will replace Dugan as the usual go-to director is nil.
In “That’s My Boy,” Sandler plays his usual man-child, with the added twist that the character begins as a child-man — that is to say, he does a very manly thing at age 12 when he has an affair with his math teacher (Eva Amurri). Their relationship not only results in her pregnancy, but 30 years in prison as well, leaving Sandler’s Donny to raise their son, Han Solo, on his own.
In a surprisingly restrained decision, Anders and screenwriter David Caspe choose not dwell on Donny’s sorry attempts at parenting, instead opting to merely fill the audience in on the highlights that led Han Solo to abandon Donny once he came of age.
Years later, Donny, who has been living low off the fruits of his hot-for-teacher infamy, finds himself on the cusp of prison when the IRS demands $43,000 in back-taxes. So Donny tracks down Han, now Todd (Andy Samberg), a wealthy hedge fund manager, in hopes of convincing him to appear on a sleazy talk show reunion. Of course, the timing is most inconvenient, as Todd and his fiancée (Leighton Meester) are about to tie the knot.
I’m sure you can imagine where the plot goes from there. At 114 minutes, “That’s My Boy” is the “Sátántangó” of Sandler films, and even the actor’s most enthusiastic fans will doubtlessly wonder why certain lengthy scenes, such as a booze and drug-fueled bachelor party with Vanilla Ice, couldn’t be trimmed. But even though the movie drones on, the gags do score chuckles with surprising frequency. As a director, Anders demonstrates a better sense of comic timing than Dugan, whose treatment of humor is the cinematic equivalent of screaming “Laugh!” into the viewer’s ear. “That’s My Boy” is still undoubtedly a Sandler film, with all the flaws that entails, but when grading on the Sandler curve, it doesn’t come out too poorly.
The film’s R-rating allows for even more vulgarity than usual, with ceaseless jokes about dicks, tits, fucking, jerking off, and getting shit-hammered. Granted, Sandler’s PG-13 vehicles often amount to such things by inference, but the R-rating’s extra freedom allowed “That’s My Boy” to be a bit more honest about its low-brow humor. Make no mistake: this is a film that most viewers couldn’t watch with their grandmother, especially since Donny’s sexual conquest of an octogenarian is the second-funniest plot thread. As for the funniest plot thread, one might want to avoid watching “That’s My Boy” with a sibling, as well.