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.