Tag Archives: D

THE BENCHWARMERS

Critics are prone to pounce with special vigor on movies that haven’t been pre-screened for them, but one suspects the venom will be particularly strong toward “The Benchwarmers,” because not only wasn’t it pre-screened, but early showings that had been scheduled for the press were summarily canceled; and when one PR worker in Florida made a mistake and allowed a reviewer into a “closed” showing, the distributor tried to squelch his day-of-opening notice to prevent its circulation. That’s like adding insult to injury, so one can expect the movie to collect some of the year’s most scathing notices.

The word from here, though, is to take a deep breath and hold your heaviest fire. Not that “The Benchwarmers” is good; it’s an assembly-line picture from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, and like most of the others of its ilk it’s pretty terrible–a movie fashioned for the arrested development set (not those addicted to the fondly-remembered TV series, but those suffering from the psychological malady) that would have to move up a couple rungs on the evolutionary ladder to be called moronic. Nonetheless it’s a fact that the picture, about three adult stooges who take to the baseball diamond to thrash mean little league teams in the name of nerds everywhere, isn’t as bad as some of its predecessors. It may boast entirely too many flatulence gags, gross-out episodes and jokes based on balls to the crotch, but it’s still much less offensive than a piece of utter garbage like “Grandma’s Boy.” I guess you could say that that movie reeked like trash that has been sitting out in the sun for a week. By contrast, this one is like a sack that was set out for pick-up only yesterday morning. It smells, but not quite as bad.

The dim-bulb premise is that Gus (Rob Schneider), a nice-guy lawn worker, links up with two neighborhood nitwits–mop-haired video-store geek Richie (David Spade) and uber-nerd momma’s boy Clark (Jon Heder), who’s still delivering newspapers at twenty-five–to challenge a team of young bullies they catch tormenting some dorky types at the local practice field. With Gus pitching strikes and hitting homer after homer while the other two make slapstick fools of themselves on the sidelines, they easily trounce the kids, much to the chagrin of their obnoxious coach Jerry (Craig Kilborn). When mega-billionaire Mel (Jon Lovitz), the father of one of the nerds the trio helped, gets wind of what they did, he offers to bankroll a tournament in which they’ll challenge other similarly-abusive teams. The rest of the movie centers on the succession of games, with lots of silly/gross slapstick as the guys rack up win after win while earning the applause of nerds everywhere. Their success leads Richie and Clark, as well as Richie’s agoraphobic brother Howie (Nick Swardson), to break out of their shells, but acts as an inspiration to lots of other people, too.

Of course, a story like this requires some big obstacle to arise in the third act and create a bump in the road; in this case, an unhappy revelation about nice-guy Gus threatens their team’s progress as well as his own reputation. It also allows for an injection of the one thing the movie had desperately missed up until this point: midget humor! Could anything be more fun? Of course, almost everyone (save real jerks like Jerry) learn the lesson of brotherhood in the end–they might as well break out in a chorus of “Kumbaya”–before the inevitable parade of out-takes accompanying the closing credits.

“The Benchwarmers” suffers from stupidity and repetitiveness in approximately equal measure, and though it runs a mere eighty minutes, the comic shtick of Spade (with his increasingly flat sarcastic put-downs) and Heder (featuring booger-eating and other infantilism) really outstays irs welcome. Kilborn and Swardson (one of the writers, who also defaced “Grandma’s Boy”) are even worse, and cameos from the likes of SNL alums like Tim Meadows and Terry Crews (Sandler himself doesn’t show up, though a couple of his relatives do) are of little help. On the other hand, it’s good to see Schneider have an opportunity to underplay again after his torturous recent vehicles–he can actually play the nice guy pretty well–and Lovitz brings his customary flamboyance to the part of Mel, whose love of gadgets, TV cars and “Star Wars” paraphernalia gives his theatrical stridency plenty of room. The kids are a pretty likable bunch, overall.

Dennis Dugan’s direction is way too permissive, and he goes for the crudity all too often, but that’s the nature of the beast. And the physical production hardly soothes the eye. But then this sort of brainless puerility isn’t supposed to be pretty. “The Benchwarmers” isn’t going to amuse anybody outside its target audience, but the fourteen-year old boys who go to movies in herds and guys older than that whose sense of humor mirrors that of Homer Simpson should find it to their liking. And its softer side–as in the subplots involving Gus and his wife (Molly Sims) and Richie and a pretty waitress (Erinn Bartlett)–may even make it tolerable to the wives, daughters and dates who come along with them.

In a Happy Madison production, that’s about as good as it gets.

MIRRORMASK

This elaborate special-effects exercise from the Jim Henson Company obviously aspires to be a visionary fairy-tale–a kind of contemporary version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with shards of “The Wizard of Oz” strewn about as well. But the only real wonderment attached to the extravagantly high-tech “MirrorMask” comes from puzzling over why anyone would have expended so much time, money and energy making it. An empty white screen would have been more entertaining than this dull, pretentious, technically imaginative but nonetheless unattractive misfire.

Reversing the old saw about kids wanting to run away to the circus, Neil Gaiman’s script centers on Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a young woman who wants to leave her family’s little traveling road-show–which, in the few scenes we see of it, looks like a cross between a bargain-basement Cirque de Soleil and a really bad imitation of a Fellini movie–and become a normal person. But when her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) suddenly falls ill and her father Morris (Rob Brydon) may be forced to close the show down, Helena takes it upon herself to travel to the mysterious Dark Lands, where, “Oz”-like, she encounters figures who look oddly like those she left behind in the “real” world (as well as lots of weird CGI things and a sporadically helpful juggler named Valentine, played with what looks like a cardboard box over his head by Jason Barry) and discovers that her own malicious doppelganger has escaped her unhappy existence and taken her place back home. Helena must locate the titular device, which–we’re told–she’ll be able to use not only to free herself from imprisonment by her double’s wicked mother the Queen of Shadows (McKee again) but also revive the Queen of Light (again McKee), who’s suffering from some sort of “Sleeping Beauty” sickness–and thereby save her mother, too.

The moral of all this, of course, is that there’s no place like home, and one should always appreciate the blessings that exist right under your own nose. But in this case the movie that delivers the message shows plenty of visual imagination but is totally devoid of charm, wit or emotional resonance. Simply put, the only element that stands out here–the admittedly striking images–are cold and antiseptic, largely bleached of color and so anxious to look bizarre and unreal that they distance you from the characters rather than making them endearing and sympathetic. Even as it tries desperately to engage the eye, “MirrorMask” fails utterly to touch the heart. And as has happened so often in the past with movies that offered splashy surfaces without bothering to offer anything beneath them, it comes to seem increasingly vacuous and irritating as it drones on. It runs only 96 minutes but ends up feeling twice that long. In this unfeeling environment, the human beings onscreen necessarily suffer. Leonidas and McKee seem as plastic as most of the sets and figures they interact with, while Brydon appears understandably flustered and out of sorts throughout. Even at that, he’s positively personable beside Barry, whose Valentine is a flat, dyspeptic downer (and who doesn’t come off a lot better when he makes his inevitable appearance sans makeup at the close).

There’s one bit of dialogue in “MirrorMask” that at least seems appropriate in this unhappy context. It comes when Valentine remarks, “It’s all rubbish, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean anything.” A more self-referential bit of writing may never have occurred in a movie before. Adults will find this picture a drab exercise in style, and any children unlucky enough to tag along with them will be bored stiff. So perhaps if you have kids that you want to punish for some misdeed and don’t mind suffering along with them, “MirrorMask” will serve a useful purpose. Otherwise, keep your distance.