Movie Review: 'Bedtime Stories' With Adam Sandler

By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 25, 2008

An innocuous but haphazard family comedy that seems less crafted for children than dreamed up by a team of them, "Bedtime Stories" is energetic enough to occupy youngsters, yet slipshod enough that their parents will wish a few more adults had been around during filming. Instead, there was Adam Sandler, who brings his immature charms to the role of Skeeter Bronson, a handyman with dreams of running the posh Los Angeles hotel where he changes the light bulbs.

As usual in his films, Sandler is confronted in "Bedtime Stories" with a passel of authority figures determined to bring him down. The only surprise this time is that among the sticks-in-the-mud are a couple of tiny grown-ups: the square, vegetarian, no-TV-watching children of his square, vegetarian, no-TV-owning sister (Courteney Cox). Saddled with his niece Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) and nephew Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) for a week, Skeeter loosens them up using Sandler's trademark mix of social ineptitude, funny voices and lack of regard for others bordering on the sociopathic.

Faced with the unwelcome concept of reading books to the kids at bedtime -- specifically the books their mother buys, with titles like "Rainbow Alligator Saves the Wetlands" and "The Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet" -- Skeeter instead makes up his own bedtime story, about a medieval handyman who's allowed to compete for a chance to run the kingdom. At the end of Skeeter's story, the kingdom cheers wildly and gumballs rain from the sky. The next day, Skeeter is shocked to learn that his hotel's owner (Richard Griffiths) is allowing him to compete for a chance to run the joint. Later, gumballs rain from the sky.

Instantly, Skeeter's back with the kids, eagerly telling a bedtime story that rewards him with a Ferrari. It's nice that "Bedtime Stories" skips all those boring scenes of our hero overcoming his disbelief in the miracle that's just happened to him. But when the rules governing Skeeter's magical stories keep nonsensically changing without even the most perfunctory of explanations, "Bedtime Stories" starts to feel awfully lazy. I'm all for the suspension of disbelief, but c'mon, doesn't every movie like this need an ancient Egyptian artifact or whatever, just so we know the screenwriters put in the time to come up with some stupid thing?

"Bedtime Stories" alternates Skeeter's tales -- which we see on-screen, acted out by the people in Skeeter's life -- with the subplot of Skeeter's competition against buffoonish hotel manager Kendall (Guy Pearce). That the bedtime stories themselves -- and their real-life corollaries -- never feel quite as inspired or witty as you hope they will, and instead serve mostly to inflate the movie's star and the not-even-a-character he plays, adds to the overall feeling of shoddiness. This is, after all, a movie that dwells lovingly on a scene in which the girls who were mean to Sandler -- I mean Skeeter! -- in high school speak lovingly of how handsome he turned out. Then they dance the hokey-pokey.

The movie's genial tolerability is thanks mostly to Disney's willingness to spend scads of money. Director Adam Shankman coordinates a first-rate effects team, and the film's visuals seem to have been imported straight from a kid's imagination. A mix of big-name stars and world-class actors inhabits the movie's smaller roles, their onscreen enthusiasm perhaps related to the vacation homes their Disney paychecks have allowed them to purchase. It's hard to complain too stridently about a movie that makes Guy Pearce sing and dance, or casts Rob Schneider as a Native American pickpocket, or allows Richard Griffiths, perhaps the most eloquent British stage actor working today, to declaim those deathless words that Shakespeare dared not pen: "Bring out the booger monster!"

Best of all is Keri Russell, who plays Skeeter's love interest and who brightens the tart rhubarb pie of her performance in "Waitress" with just a pinch of Disney sweetness. It'd be nice to see what an actress like Russell could do with a lead role in a Disney family movie, but alas, girls star in such movies only when they're teenage pop stars or animated princesses. Disney's grown-up leads are all reserved for Sandler, Tim Allen and the Rock.

It's telling to compare "Bedtime Stories" with another current family movie, the animated adventure "The Tale of Desperaux," in which books inspire a tiny mouse to a life of honor, chivalry and truth. That's a far more heartfelt testament to the power of storytelling than "Bedtime Stories," in which tales born of self-interest serve mostly to fatten the self-esteem of Adam Sandler -- and the profits of a different, much bigger, mouse.

Bedtime Stories (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild rude humor and mild language.

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