Adam Sandler lives to live out our fantasies on screen. He’s the little boy inside us all; the fat, dumb kid who wants to be a spy, a football star, or beat Bob Barker at golf. He accomplished all of this even though, much like our awkward pre-teen selves, he never really seems to have much talent for it. In Happy Gilmore he defeats Shooter McGavin mostly because he’s angry, and not because he’s good at golf. In Billy Madison he makes the grade and gets the hot chick not because he’s smart or even very good looking, but because he’s funny in a dopey sort of way. Adam Sandler’s on screen life is a never ending adolescent daydream, unrealistic but ultimately satisfying, making him the perfect choice to play a man thrust into the fantasy world of kids in Bedtime Stories. Unfortunately scripts cannot be written by raw anger unless there’s ability there to channel it and dopiness (even the cute and loveable variety) merely results in a dopey script. Making movies requires real talent and behind the scenes of Bedtime Stories there must have been a serious shortage.
Early on Bedtime Stories lets us know that it has settled on “goofy” as its lovable yet useless Adam Sandler trait of choice. Sandler plays goofy to the hilt as Skeeter Bronson. While Skeeter was still a child, his father sold a hotel to a greedy developer on the condition that when his son got older he’d be allowed to run it. His father sealed this deal with a handshake. I guess he’d never heard of contracts.
Skeeter and his sister Wendy (Courtney Cox) grew up in the hotel, living a happy, magical existence of endless room service and laps in the pool. Now fully grown, Skeeter is employed at the same hotel but the greedy developer’s promise to his father is long forgotten. Skeeter is relegated to maintenance man and though there’s some grumbling about how he may be getting a raw deal, it’s a job for which he seems perfectly suited. Money isn’t everything. In a more complex, well-thought out movie that might have been the lesson Bedtime Stories left us with. This isn’t that movie though, and so Skeeter can’t forget his father’s promise and secretly hungers for his shot at the top. He reasons that because he knows how to fix televisions, that makes him qualified management. Unfortunately “goofy haircut” isn’t exactly the kind of qualification which sells a resume and so Skeeter must wait for a miracle. It happens when his sister goes out of town and he’s asked to babysit.
His sister is mother to two sweet, but outwardly unremarkable children. They live in a house without cable television and so Skeeter is forced to invent bedtime stories to entertain them. He’s imaginative and the kids are enthralled, so enthralled that they soon join in the storytelling, adding their own bits to Skeeter’s tales as he talks. The next morning Skeeter wakes up and finds the parts inserted by the children coming true. Sort of. This is where the film jumps off the rails. It’s never entirely clear why this is happening or if indeed it really is. Is this a miracle or merely a set of bizarre coincidences? Bedtime Stories can’t decide which it wants to go with. A rainstorm of gumballs might seem miraculous, but the camera pans back to spoil the miracle by revealing a wrecked gumball delivery truck on the overpass above. Other apparent miracles are however, left alone, as if we are to believe them to be as magical as they seem. Or did someone just forget to pull back the camera?
Under such circumstances Bedtime Stories quickly loses its much needed sense of wonder and beings to go flat. To compensate, the film resorts to a series of obvious cinematic crutches aimed at audiences which I can only assume Hollywood believes are composed primarily of fourth graders, or adults movie watching on a fourth grade level. The worst offender of these randomly inserted buttresses is a CGI guinea pig named Bugsy who, if IMDB were to credit the film correctly, would be listed right beneath Adam Sandler as the movie’s second lead.
Bugsy lives in the children’s bedroom, and is referenced endlessly. Because most of the movie’s moments lack any real magic of their own, Bugsy is used as a punctuation mark. After each exchange of dialogue someone invariably asks the equivalent of “hey what did Bugsy think of that”, and the camera pans over to our CGI friend for a cartoonish, Looney Tunes reaction. Sometimes Bugsy merely grunts in affirmation, other times we might spot him running on a tread mill, complete with sickeningly cute, rodent-sized headband. Bugsy serves no real purpose in the story, yet he’s involved in every aspect of it, long past the point of common sense. Nothing in Bedtime Stories is allowed to pass without Bugsy interference. There’s more than one place where it becomes outright embarrassing for the other actors involved in the film, as everything they do is capped off by the guinea pig as if to say, “hey you can’t cut it and so we were forced to bring in a rat.” Unfair. It’s not Russell Brand’s fault he’s stuck reading from this half-thought out script.
The frustrating thing about Bedtime Stories isn’t that it’s awful exactly, more that it might have had something. The cast is, for a throwaway family comedy, nothing short of incredible. Guy Pearce and Keri Russell are the kinds of actors you usually see in awards contenders, yet here they are co-starring with a computerized hamster. The premise, while utterly botched by Shankman’s direction, could have easily delivered a perfect dose of holiday imagination and charm, the kind that creates a holiday classic. It doesn’t have it. Bedtime Stories is like watching a Michel Gondry movie rewritten and directed by Uwe Boll. Bedtime Stories needed subtlety and hits its audience over the head with a frying pan instead.