Bedtime Stories That Miss by a Mile

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Tracy Bennett / Disney

Adam Sandler, Keri Russell in Bedtime Stories.

Movie critics secretly believe what so many Hollywood films teach: that even the most ordinary schlubbs can rise to excellence. So this reviewer was happy to salute the recent films of two Hollywood types who previously, to put it politely, hadn't made masterpieces. This summer, Adam Sandler dispensed with his standard idiot character and his movies' gay-baiting infantilism to play a borderline adult in the rambunctious, satisfying You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Director Adam Shankman, who had slummed in Disney comedies about exasperated adults and the sassy kids in their care (The Pacifier, Cheaper by the Dozen 2), brought movie zazz to a pair of composer Marc Shaiman's tuneful parodies: Hairspray and this month's vidcast Prop 8: The Musical. Let's hear it for the prodigal sons!

Those pleasant achievements, or happy accidents, kindled hope for Bedtime Stories, the season's only live-action comedy with a kid-approved PG rating. Well, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers." After sitting through this fractious fairy tale, we feel as plucked as a Christmas goose. The star and his director have surrendered to their old bad habits, in a movie that will nonetheless provide — as Sandler's character does — a balky babysitter for children in search of a new-style fairy tale.

Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, son of a one-time hotel magnate (Jonathan Pryce) who lost his empire to Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths, slimmed down a few stone since his History Boys stint). Now Nottingham is grooming the snidely Kendall (Guy Pearce) as his heir, while employing Skeeter in the lowly capacity of light-bulb changer. At the hotel his ally is do-nothing Mickey (Russell Brand); his other adversary is the officious Aspen (Lucy Lawless of Xena renown); and the potential prize and troublemaker is Nottingham's sexy daughter Violet (Teresa Palmer). When Skeeter's sister (Courteney Cox) goes out of town, she entrusts him with her two children (Jonathan Morgan Heit and Laura Ann Kesling). Actually, she doesn't trust him, so she has her schoolteacher neighbor Jill (Keri Russell) keep a skeptical eye on him.

Was that paragraph as much a chore to read as it was to write? Any comedy with 11 major actors — not including Sandler's wife Jackie and daughter Sadie, the inevitable turn by Rob Schneider (another Sandler familiar, John Turturro, sat this one out) and a goggle-eyed guinea pig named Bugsy — is either (a) brilliantly dense in the Preston Sturges tradition or (b) just an overcongested mess. Go with (b).

And we haven't got to the main contrivance of the plot, hatched by Matt Lopez and fleshed out by longtime Sandler scribe Tim Herlihy. Obliged to read the children to sleep with a bedtime story, Skeeter tosses aside his sister's PC books like The Organic Squirrel Gets a Bike Helmet ("Communist stuff," he opines) and invents a fairy tale of his own: a medieval frolic where he is Sir Fix-a-Lot and Kendall is Sir Butt-kiss. As Skeeter wanly improvs, the kids add impish twists of their own: that the sky will rain gumballs, a dwarf will ruin Sir Fix-a-Lot's heroic moment by kicking him... basic kid stuff. Weird thing is, the things the kids made up happen to Skeeter in real life: gumballs, dwarf and all. If he can somehow harness this magic, he may win a competition with Kendall to create a theme for Nottingham's new hotel, and save Jill's school from demolition.

It's all wildly, needlessly complicated. The bedtime stories themselves (others are in the Western, Roman-epic and Star Wars genres) display some glimmers of comic imagination. But if Shankman was aiming for The Princess Bride's mix of fantasy, facetiousness and romance, or even the meta-fable sprawl of Stardust, he missed it by a mile. Magic eludes the entire enterprise. Sure, there's potential in the kids-as-sorcerers plot, and game energy in the pan-Anglo cast. (Palmer, from Australia, is a standout as the Paris Hiltonish vixen, much more charming than the original.) And yet the movie doesn't move, because it is defined by Sandler's essentially static, grudging persona.

The star is unlikely to change his style. Why should he, since in the past decade he's headlined nine movies that have grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office? Zohan showed he could play a smarter, livelier, more active character and still connect with the mass audience. But in Bedtime Stories he's back to the old, tightly-wound Adam. In one of his exchanges with creepy Kendall, Skeeter says, "And me, I'm like the stink on your feet. I ain't ever goin' anywhere." That line could be a threat, or a confession of his loser status; but coming from Sandler it sounds like a boast. As long as the paying customers cheer his characters' sullen, oafish status quo, he ain't ever goin' anywhere.