STARRING: Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Russell Brand, Teresa Palmer, Richard Griffiths, Lucy Lawless, Courteney Cox, Keri Russell, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce

2008, 108 Minutes, Directed by:
Adam Shankman

At least he's not flinging vomit at anybody!

With Adam Sandler movies, you take your victories where you can find them, and the comic actor's pairing with Walt Disney pictures has thankfully convinced him to drop the worst of his trademark foulness this time. On the other hand, for a movie called Bedtime Stories, the people involved don't have the slightest idea how to actually tell a story.

I'm aware that the wee ones for whom the film is presumably intended won't notice things like well-developed characters or logical plots. But such elements are comparatively easy to generate while adding so much to the magic this movie clearly wants to deliver. It couldn't be bothered to work out the details and arrogantly assumes that the audience won't notice: in other words, business as usual over at Happy Madison.

Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, one of his patented idiot man-children dripping with contempt for everyone around him and yet somehow supposed to be a sweet and fun-loving guy. He works as a handyman in a luxury hotel on the lot where his father (Jonathan Pryce) once ran a cozy family-run motor court. His boss (Richard Griffiths) promised to give Skeeter a manager's job when the property got bought up, but the obsequious Kendall (Guy Pearce) ended up running the place, leaving Skeeter to change the light bulbs for past twenty-five years.

What any of it has to do with bedtime stories isn't entirely clear. There's a whole different subplot for that, wherein Skeeter's sister (Courtney Cox) goes to Arizona to look for a new job and leaves her two kids with him for a week. The three tell bedtime stories every night - derivative bits of whimsy which basically give Sandler the chance to act out various empowerment fantasies - only to see them magically reappear in the real world the next day. (And if that sounds like a bit of a non sequitur, wait until you see the bug-eyed guinea pig.)

"Kids shouldn't have to put up with a compost heap like this!"

There's nothing wrong with such fancifulness. In fact the difference between the tales Skeeter and the children tell and the way they subsequently come to life forms the barest, tiniest hint of an interesting idea. For while the stories are utter fantasy, their real world embodiments are still grounded in naturalism. A rain of gumballs in a fairy tale kingdom becomes a truckload of them bursting open on a freeway overpass to patter down on Skeeter's head, a band of vicious Wild West outlaws become paparazzi hassling the boss's daughter (Teresa Palmer), and so on. Most of us would chalk it all up to odd coincidence, but Skeeter immediately assumes that magic is afoot.

He promptly starts to job the stories - reshaping the details to favor the hero each night - in the hopes that their eventual manifestation will fulfill all his materialistic desires. They don't work out quite the way he thinks, and that's kind of fun to watch. But Bedtime Stories provides no explanation as to either how this extraordinary phenomenon takes place or why Skeeter would pick up on its true nature so readily. "It's magic," the producers would likely say, but even magic needs some justification: a mystic rock, a fairy godmother… something. Bedtime Stories doesn't even go through the motions, leaving Skeeter's realization a piece of pure deus ex machina.

Not that the rest of the film cares at all about motivation. Skeeter's connections to other characters are slapped together with the laziest possible expediency. Villains are awful because they need to be, Skeeter is cool because the screenplay says so, and the movie's love interest (Keri Russell, presumably enjoying her check before moving on to better things) goes from disgusted to enchanted solely because it's the point in the movie where Sandler has to get the girl.

None of them relate to each other the way real people do: they're simply props pushed around by the pretence of motivation and existing solely because the movie requires them. The usual pandering to Sandler's ego makes it doubly unpalatable: watching an actor as good as Pearce playing straight man to the star's crude antics ranks as one of the most painful onscreen incidents of the year.

Why does all that matter? Because Bedtime Stories clearly wants to plant a warm fuzzy in our hearts. It wants us to believe that Skeeter's a good guy and that the magic he unwittingly conjures brings happiness and contentment to those around him. But those kinds of emotions take some groundwork to establish. They need to come from believable figures engaged in a scenario we can accept, even if said scenario involves fairy tales coming to life.

Bedtime Stories utterly fails to do that: not because it's restrained by the budget or its creators weren't capable, but because it simply didn't occur to anyone that they needed to make the effort. The sad, lazy results might be further explained away by saying it's a family film… but kids shouldn't have to put up with a compost heap like this one any more than adults.

- Rob Vaux


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