Review: That's My Boy

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That's My Boy

Modern Hollywood movies are sorely lacking in sociopolitical relevance. In this age of mindless comic book-based action spectaculars and focus-grouped romantic comedies, the American mainstream film industry has all but abandoned features that have anything to say about the human condition.

But do not abandon hope, all ye who enter the multiplex in search of thoughtful, provocative cinema; seek cinematic enlightenment and you shall find it, if all too rarely. You shall find it perhaps where least expected, as I recently did in a movie destined to be remembered as one of the finest films of this or any other year.

I refer, of course, to the cinematic triumph that is Adam Sandler's That's My Boy. This subtle, multilayered masterpiece of social criticism is the rare film that transcends mere excellence. It is, dare I say, important. Like no other film I've seen this year -- including Bobcat Goldthwait's poignant celebration of the human spirit, God Bless America -- That's My Boy holds us spellbound before a mirror that reflects who we are, where we've been and where we're going. It is the necessarily unflattering portrait of American life that Hollywood has left unpainted for far too long. And it is a film worthy of a somewhat scholarly analysis, rather than a brief review.

First and foremost, That's My Boy is a searing indictment of our crumbling educational infrastructure. At first glance, this story of a young teen who fathers his teacher's child in the early 1980s appears entirely prurient and superficial. But if you probe deeper into its significance, much the way young Donny (Justin Weaver) probes the alluring Ms. Mary McGarricle (Eva Amurri Martino) in the film's opening sequences, its metaphorical nature becomes readily apparent: Donny and his teacher's extracurricular activities no doubt symbolize the way our underfunded schools are totally screwing our children.

The most striking example of this symbolism is a pivotal scene in which the two lovers interrupt a school assembly with their alley-cattish wailing from behind the auditorium stage curtain. As the curtain is pulled back to reveal their unrepentant shagging in flagrante delicto, so does the movie reveal the naked, horrific truth about American's educational decline.

The story that follows this scene is ostensibly about a present-day reunion of the now-adult Donny (Sandler) and the biological byproduct of the couple's criminal copulations, Todd (Andy Samberg). But I say "ostensibly" because That's My Boy is about so much more. So, so much more. Really -- a lot more.

Donny raises Todd while Mary serves a 30-year prison sentence for her crime of passion. Why such a harsh sentence? Because it is emblematic of all that is wrong with America's profit-driven prison-industrial complex. Sandler forces us to confront the issue of crimes with no obvious victims -- hey, the kid was totally hot for teacher and a willing partner in their coital trysting -- by presenting us with the ugly reality of profit-driven incarceration. This is what happens, That's My Boy tells us, when our country must feed the ravenous appetite of its private prisons with a steady diet of low-level drug offenders and teachers whose only crime is loving their students too much.

That's My Boy also reminds us that a bad world stems largely from bad parenting. Donny feeds his son cake and lollipops for breakfast and plenty of junk food until the boy balloons into morbid obesity; is this not a scathing denunciation of America's sugar and fat-laden diet? The teenaged father also has his son's back tattooed with portraits of the New Kids on the Block. This, of course, is a commentary about the relationship between bad parenting and bad music, for a good parent with more refined tastes would have chosen a much better 1980s band, such as REM.

Todd leaves home at 18, cuts off all contact with his father and becomes a zillionaire hedge fund manager about to marry his lovely fiancée, Jamie (Leighton Meester), whose entirely conventional good looks are a castigation of our society's unrealistic ideals of female beauty. Todd also has gone to great lengths to put his sensationalized past behind him. His story was the subject of lurid media fascination for years; a montage of tabloid magazine covers and scenes from a vapid TV sitcom about him is a searing window on our shallow popular culture, one that ignores artistic endeavor and embraces imbecilic movies like Grown Ups and Jack and Jill.

Todd may have left his childhood behind, but the deeply in-debt Donny hopes to cash in on the decades-old scandal once again. He invades his son's life after a dozen-year absence, hoping to convince Todd to visit his infamous mother in the slammer, so Donny can accept a huge payment from a tabloid TV show that will cover the reunion. Donny is everything his responsible son is not: crudely offensive, lacking in self control and prone to alienating all who meet him, he signifies the dwindling of societal decorum. He's also poor and drives a crappy old Pontiac Fiero, a smoke-spewing, duct-taped symbol of America's faded industrial might.

And yet again, That's My Boy's profound underpinnings are evident: Far more than just a story of a clash between an inebriated gas-passing miscreant and his über-nerdy, greedheaded progeny, the movie spins a tale about the ageless struggle between wealth and poverty. Todd's ostentatious Wall Street-funded lifestyle is a grotesquely spot-on reflection of the ever-widening gap between America's haves and have-nots, of a society that privatizes financial gain while socializing financial risk. On the other hand, Donny's starkly contrasting poverty is our nation's poverty -- and it's not only an economic poverty, but a poverty of hope, a poverty of understanding, a poverty of meaningful ideals.

Another That's My Boy theme is our increasingly hyperconnected world, a place in which privacy is going the way of landline phones and centrist Republicans. The movie's allusion to this phenomenon is somewhat indirect, but nonetheless striking. In a scene where Donny tries to teach Todd to ride a bike, Todd crashes into the back of a car, startling the half-naked couple inside it. I'd argue that the car represents privacy, perhaps the only place the couple could be alone. Todd's collision is the collision between privacy and online exposure; the crash rousts the couple from the car, and we watch their portly, pale bodies flounder about in the street, as if in the harsh glare of the Internet.  We glimpse the man's flabby buttocks; do they represent once-private things that are now public, on display for all the world to see and never to be private again, something that when seen, cannot be unseen? (I do wish I could unsee them.)

The dynamic duo of racism and sexism do not escape Sandler's shrewdly observant wrath, either. Todd's Asian maid and butler may have minor roles in That's My Boy, but the seemingly clichéd, subservient characters (or perhaps charicatures) pack a sociological wallop; in a scene where they curse and raise their middle fingers at their elitist bosses, they express the beaten-down rage of people of color everywhere. Numerous strip-club scenes could be dismissed as excuses to show lots of impressive boobies, but they're actually howling diatribes against the second-class citizenship of women in a society that objectifies rather than empowers them. In one memorable scene, a Rubenesque African American stripper shoots a tennis ball from her lady parts; the flying tennis ball is undoubtedly a metaphorical shot across the bow of misogyny -- and perhaps racism also.

There are also several scenes in which Donny pleasures himself while looking at photos of an elderly woman; her symbolic significance isn't entirely clear, but perhaps Donny's objectification of her represents society's general disrespect for the elderly. Another possible interpretation is that she symbolizes the ongoing dilemma of how to fund Social Security and Medicare while ensuring that Todd and his bizillionaire buddies keep their vitally important, job-creating tax cuts.

If my insights into That's My Boy aren't enough to convince you that it has raised the bar for relevance in filmmaking, consider this: Susan Sarandon and James Caan bless the film with their considerable talents, and these discriminating actors wouldn't appear in a film just to earn an easy paycheck. Neither would Todd Bridges or Tony Orlando – and certainly not Vanilla Ice.

Again, That's My Boy is an astounding work, a rare cinematic gem of such soaring influence and formidable power that it is not to be missed. Less insightful critics no doubt are dismissing it as crude and pointless dreck for the philistine masses; I imagine them suggesting an alternative title such as That's My Racist Fart Joke with Huge Gazongas. I, however, respectfully disagree: If anything, That's My Boy should be called That's My Contribution to the Betterment of Humanity, and You're Welcome.

srsly?

srsly?

Bravo!

Bravo my friend, Bravo! The review is probably funnier than the movie.

I can't believe you took the

I can't believe you took the time to write this out. You need to remember who your writing to. I guarantee you that at least half of the people reading this will consider your words fact and no way a sarcastic rant on your hate for modern day "dumb ass" comedies. Remember that no matter what generation you cover in cinema you will find enough movies that kill your brain cells as the generations before them. That is all.

smart readers

Bill, I like to think that Slackerwood's readers are smart enough to appreciate Don's sense of humor. He knew exactly what his audience would be.

As a longtime Slackerwood

As a longtime Slackerwood reader I for one did appreciate Don's sardonic humor - isn't the best place to go with a movie like this Over the Top?

Such lost opportunities - people have known for years that using the strong resemblance between Adam Sandler & Andy Samberg could be fun in a movie. And seeing her excellent work in Jeff Who Lives At Home made me hope that Susan Sarandon would be getting better roles. Wrong again.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose