Blended (2014; dir. Frank Coraci) can be summed up in a single sentence: an exhausting two hours of jokes about androgynous daughters, lesbians, and Africa. There are few films I can legitimately say should be consigned to the fires where “art” goes to be mercifully removed from human consciousness. Blended, unfortunately, is one of those films. Contrived and painfully anathema to comedy, Blended may be one of the worst films of 2014; it may even be the worst Adam Sandler film to be presented to the public.
Starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, Blended follows two single parents, Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore), who meet on a blind date and realize they pretty much hate one another. But as fate would have it, they can’t seem to avoid meeting, especially when both Jim and Lauren decide to take their kids on an African safari, not realizing that they’re each going on the same trip. As a result, they become engrossed in one another’s lives, sparking, as to be expected, a romance and giving meaning to the title.
Blended is a prime example of a film which relies on absurd plot contrivances to make its premise work. Why wouldn’t Jim’s boss simply ask the African hotel palace to change the names on his reservation? Are we honestly expected to believe a hotel which must cost thousands of dollars per week would not be willing to accommodate a changed reservation? Yes, we are, and if you’re like me, you’re likely to call bullshit pretty quick, because the film’s entire structure relies on accepting this inane excuse so we can somehow appreciate the situational comedy it produces. Unfortunately, the poor potting shows, as the narrative cannot help but indulge in comedy to disrupt the narrative we’re supposed to care about. It’s hamfisted and absurd, but even more so because the film wants us to find the Africa side of the story charming and funny at the same time.
Not that the film was funny before it went to Africa, mind. In truth, the film is excruciatingly unfunny for almost its entire run. The film hammers us over and over with jokes about Jim’s not-so-androgynous daughters looking suspiciously androgynous. The “hilarity” of random people failing to get that Hilary (Bella Thorne) and, to a lesser extent, Espn (Emma Fuhrmann) are actually girls is reinforced so often that the film at times ceases to be a family drama and becomes a bodily horror flick. That this is a situation most people would avoid by simply saying “well, aren’t your children lovely” seems to go over the film’s proverbial head. It wants us to laugh at the torment of its teenage girls because nothing is quite so funny as bashing young girls with cultural gender and beauty standards. What makes this repetition worse is that it is presented in the framework of a family comedy and that it reinforces the lesson by coding Jim’s parenting skills as “raising boys.” Never mind that girls and women play sports. Never mind that girls and women train and work out like anyone else who is interested in such things. Blended doesn’t challenge these antiquated concepts of what girls can and cannot do as girls; it relishes in them. There are few times when I’ve felt the need to tell a film to “fuck off.” This is one of those times.
Where the film’s “comedy” falls hardest, however, is in its portrayal of Africa. You’ve seen this Africa before. American rhetoric regarding Africa usually falls into two camps: it is a poverty and disease-ridden uncivilized “country” which can only survive by our generous hand OR it is a rhythmic culture of giving, joyous people who are just happy to share their continent and culture (read: what Americans think of African culture) with white Westerners. In this respect, Blended is little more than a transplantation of the buffoonery of a postcolonial, neo-imperialistic rhetoric into the opulence of tourist-driven “Africa.” Blended‘s Africa is full of singing troupes of African men, servants, rhythm, and an overtly sexualized Terry Crews whose accent might best be described as “confused.” It is on its surface a rather joyous portrayal until you realize what we do not see — or rather what we’re not told. As much as the characters are hemmed in by a tourist apparatus, so are we. Even when the film takes us out of the tourist areas, it does so only to highlight the differences and to turn even those regions into a Disney-style AfricaLand. As one of the children jokingly remarks: “Yo, check out white girl in the neighborhood. Am I right, brothers?” But of course. Africa is totally just like white America’s vision of an African-American neighborhood.
There’s another aspect to all of this which makes Blended so frustrating. Even when the film turns to its underlying family drama, bringing out some of the charm of the pairing of Sandler and Barrymore as opposites-which-attract, its more offensive elements almost always find their way into the scene, smashing away anything that might make the film enjoyable. Just as I begin to like the characters and forget everything that Blended does wrong, I’m once more hit in the face with a joke about Hilary’s androgyny or Terry Crews’ African caricature or gender norms, etc. Without these reminders, the last fifteen minutes might well be heartening and emotional. But Blended can’t let itself become the family comedy it should be, and I just can’t figure out why. What purpose does all of this buffoonery serve? What does it add to a story which we’ve already heard before? I suppose the answer is simply “pain.”
While I suspect Sandler fans will find much to enjoy here, I also suspect this will not be remembered as one of his best films — and for good reason. You’re better off re-watching 50 First Dates (2004; dir. Peter Segal) or his much more interesting and under-appreciated film, Spanglish (2004; James L. Brooks). Blended, however, is the kind of awful that doesn’t even deserve recognition for its awfulness. It just needs to die in whichever hole we send unlovably bad films.
: The film refers to South Africa on a number of occasions, but I think it’s fair to say that this distinction isn’t really relevant to the film’s world. We’re not looking at South Africa. We’re looking at American interpretations of the entire continent.
: The boys don’t get away from this narrative either. Blended would have us accept that teenage boys are either sullen loners or hyper-sexualized masturbaters.