Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore paired up pretty successfully in “The Wedding Singer” (1998), and they repeated the trick with the amnesia-themed “50 First Dates” (2004). In both movies, Barrymore’s cuteness was an effective counterbalance (or complement) to Sandler’s hodgepodge of crass loopiness and underlying sincerity.
They’re back together in “Blended,” as melancholy single parents whose families bond on an African vacation. Barrymore plays harried for a chunk of the story, reminding us that she’s a mom in real life now, after all. But the movie could use a lot more of her familiar infectiousness. It’s the glue that holds together Sandler’s earnest moments and his penchant for scattershot tomfoolery.
The story opens with Sandler’s Jim and Barrymore’s Lauren on, yes, a first date — a disastrous rendezvous punctuated by peeved barbs and “emergency” calls from home giving them a quick out. It’s soon clear why they’re both off their dating game: Lauren has a couple of unruly boys and a smugly useless ex (Joel McHale), while widowed Jim tries hard with his three girls, but is better at teaching them basketball than at helping them navigate puberty.
A contrived coincidence involving Lauren’s brassy friend (Wendi McLendon-Covey) gives both Jim and Lauren the opportunity to jump on a family trip to Africa for cheap. The two are irked to meet again, but gradually, each fills a void in the other’s brood. Lauren is great with lullabies, and rightly points out that Jim’s oldest daughter (Bella Thorne) might prefer something girlier than the barbershop haircuts he gets her. (Uncomfortable tomboy jokes are only made odder by Thorne’s resemblance to Keira Knightley.) Jim, meanwhile, knows just what Lauren’s younger boy (Kyle Red Silverstein) needs: a father figure who actually cares. Enough, even, to join him in cartoonish craziness like ostrich riding.
“You gotta show up for your kids,” Jim tells Lauren in a likably sentimental bit of parental philosophizing. Of course, this being an Adam Sandler movie, he and director pal Frank Coraci (“Wedding Singer,” “Click”) hedge their narrative bets by glopping on the anything-goes humor that fans expect.
Some of it works. Sandler and Barrymore have some great interaction with Alyvia Alyn Lind, who plays Jim’s youngest daughter with a very funny mouths-of-babes streak. But while a Greek chorus styled like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and led by preening Terry Crews is gleefully wacky, don’t be surprised if the caricatured African setting draws some complaints. The location feels more like a random choice than a thematically relevant one, and at times it plays like an ad for South Africa’s infamously segregated Sun City resort.
Funny thing, though: The sunnier that Barrymore gets in her scenes with Sandler, the more the iffy elements and leaden bits seem to just melt away. Blend in more of that spirit, and their latest pairing might rate better.