Adam Sandler is at that difficult age. Now 42, he’s too old to continue with the bungling, man-child shtick of yore, yet too young to transition to old-fogey infantilism. In Bedtime Stories the pain of this artistic limbo is written all over his character, a resentful hotel handyman named Skeeter. Astonishingly, his name is not the source of his umbrage.
Skeeter’s pique (though he may not know it) is reserved for his dead father, an inept businessman whose cozy motel once occupied the lot where Skeeter’s current employer has erected an upscale resort. Gone, along with the homespun vibe, is Skeeter’s dream of one day running the property; so when his divorced sister, Wendy (a frighteningly taut Courteney Cox), asks him to baby-sit for his young niece and nephew (Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit) for a few days, Skeeter is in no mood to play scallywag uncle.
“I don’t believe in happy endings,” he tells his incredulous charges when story time comes around. Luckily for the tykes, their director, Adam Shankman, loves them, the happier the better. (Even as a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance Shankman, a popular choreographer, squirmed mightily to avoid delivering a bad critique.)
Rolling up his sleeves and piling on the digital effects, he labors to whip life into a screenplay (by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy) so tired even Bugsy, the children’s pop-eyed guinea pig, is moved to tuck himself into bed.
But Shankman is not one to give up without a fight. And as the children concoct their own stories, Skeeter and the rest of the cast are dragged through a variety of threadbare fantasies — an Old West showdown, a medieval joust, a chariot race in ancient Greece — in which Skeeter inevitably bests the villain and bags the girl. The adorable Keri Russell, as the unfortunate target of Skeeter’s passive-aggressive affections, is the movie’s soft center and sole pleasure: a locus of calm in a sea of turmoil.
Faring less well are performers whose tenure in children’s entertainment will, I hope, be brief, including Lucy Lawless as a brittle desk clerk and Russell Brand as Skeeter’s fuzzily written best friend. And if there were an Oscar for miscasting, Guy Pearce’s atrocious turn as the hotel’s pompous manager would be a lock. Mugging beneath a horrendous coif, he makes Basil Fawlty look like a paragon of restraint.
Almost everyone leaves blood on the floor, but Bedtime Stories refuses to be juiced; soured by its enervated star and uninspired writing, the movie offers only tiny moments of joy, like a hailstorm of gumballs that’s unexpectedly magical.
Clearly, pushing Skeeter’s broom doesn’t agree with Sandler, who seems impatient with immaturity and anxious to grow up. He was much happier selling novelty toilet plungers in Punch-Drunk Love, but the director of that movie, Paul Thomas Anderson, recognized his star’s natural inner rage and how to tap into it, encouraging a revelatory performance unlike anything on his resume.
If Sandler hopes to shift smoothly into more mature roles (as indicated by last year’s Reign Over Me), he needs directors who understand his uncommon gifts. The toilet plungers are optional.