Most of the depressing trends in contemporary Hollywood—the sequels, the reboots, the inferior remakes of foreign-language films, the gradual (if likely temporary) 3D-ification of genre after genre—are easily explained by greed, lack of imagination, or some combination thereof. But a reliably disappointing subcategory that lacks any obvious rationale is the reimagining of good, if perhaps not quite classic, films associated with the latter 1960s and early 1970s.
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Planet of the Apes, Alfie, The Stepford Wives, The Heartbreak Kid, The Taking of Pelham 123—all were movies very much of their times and, in their various ways, they reflected the sexual and political anxieties of the era. Over the last decade, all have been remade in forms utterly deracinated from their original context, resulting in films that have no evident idea what they are trying to say or why they are trying to say it.
To this unhappy fellowship may now be added Just Go With It, a remake of the 1969 Gene Saks film Cactus Flower. The movie differs most appreciably from its recent forebears in two ways. First, it had the decency to forego the title of the original film in favor of something more aggressively generic. And second, Just Go With It—the title itself seems a plea for audiences' forbearance—is so unremittingly awful that it makes nearly impossible any meaningful comparison to the original.
Saks's film starred Walter Matthau as a dentist-cum-ladies-man who pretends to be married in order that none of his conquests will grow too attached. But when he falls in love with the much-younger Toni (Goldie Hawn, who won an Oscar in this, her first film role), he needs to find a make-believe wife to divorce. He quickly settles on his long-suffering, spinsterish assistant, Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman). The ensuing complications, though farcical, have a cruel authenticity to them: the film was released, after all, at a time of all-but-declared intergenerational and inter-gender warfare, and Cactus Flower, for all its laughs, is a frequently revealing dispatch from the battlefield.
Such skirmishes having largely been settled, however, Just Go With It adopts the frame without the bigger picture. Adam Sandler plays Danny, a rich plastic surgeon whose sexual shenanigans are rendered theoretically excusable thanks to a tragic backstory prologue: As a young groom, he overheard his bitchy bride-to-be regaling bridesmaids with tales of cuckolding him the day before the wedding. Drunk, bereft, and unwedded (though wedding-ringed), he stumbled into a bar and accidentally elicited the carnal compassion of a young beauty. Thus began two decades of his pretending to be unhappily married (to a wife who alternatingly cheats, beats, or drinks) in order to bed a succession of sympathetic twentysomethings. He is abetted in his deception by his devoted, though not the least bit spinsterish, assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston).
Yet one day at a party, his erotic and emotional balance are upset by the appearance of the intergalactically bodacious Palmer (Brooklyn Decker, better known as the wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, and best known as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model with a proclivity for bikinis and body paint). The two sleep together on the beach and immediately fall in love, in one of the laziest romantic epiphanies ever committed to the screen.
From there, the story unfolds as before—Katherine is enlisted as the fake wife from whom Danny is seeking a divorce—with a few added wrinkles: the action is moved from New York City to Hawaii, in order that the clothing worn by the female leads may be decreased exponentially (ah, progress); a hyper-competitive old sorority sister (Nicole Kidman, in one of the most foolish roles ever accepted by a former Best Actress) shows up to offer Katherine her own rationale for deception; and the peripheral child roles of the original are vastly expanded—Katherine, a divorcee, has two young kids—in order to transform an edgy sex comedy into a "family film."
The structural alterations, however, pale in comparison to the tonal ones. Cactus Flower was not a "serious" movie, but it was a grown-up one. Just Go With It, by contrast, offers an interminable (and, for our purposes, necessarily incomplete) litany of jokes about breast implants, penile implants, butt implants, erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, testicular injuries, erections, masturbation, overweight women, old women, women with big noses, men with big noses, gay men, lazy Hispanic nannies, lazy Hawaiian nannies, sex with sheep, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of sheep, coconuts rubbed against breasts, coconuts rubbed against crotches, coconuts gripped between ass-cheeks, hands accidentally placed upon boobs, hands accidentally placed in toilets, hands accidentally shit upon, precocious children blackmailing adults, precocious children mimicking cockney accents, and precocious children dropped on their faces in the mud. There is even a scene, unconnected to any other moment in the film, in which an anonymous child hurls a soft drink on the belly of his very pregnant mother. Because, you know, it's funny. In addition to such pearls, we are, of course, treated to the wide array of random foreign and/or infantile accents that Sandler feels contractually obligated to perform.
What is remarkable about this cavalcade of vulgarity—for which I might otherwise harbor a soft spot—is that at no time does it manage, even accidentally, to be bold, or original, or subversive. Indeed, during the brief intervals between its experiments in PG-13 crudity, the movie shifts without compunction or delay into cloyingly fraudulent melodrama. Rarely, if ever, have the saccharine and the scatological been so clumsily commingled.
The performers slum their way through the material with as little enthusiasm as their paychecks will allow. Aniston's old-maid casting is a joke—in the wrong way—a prolonged setup for the moment when she strips to reveal (surprise!) her acutely aerobicized body in a bikini. (Ingrid Bergman was 54 when she took on the bittersweet role in one of her final film appearances; Aniston, 41, is as hot as she's ever been, in every sense.)
As the youthful love interest, Brooklyn Decker demonstrates that even eye candy can leave a sour taste, despite a parade of skirts that just manage to cover her hips. In Cactus Flower, director Saks made plentiful use of Hawn's wide-as-outer-space baby blues; in Just Go With It, director Dennis Dugan insistently focuses audience attention on orbs situated about eighteen inches lower. (Aniston's line at one point, "She really wears that bikini well," is the closest thing to a philosophic rationale the film ever offers for its existence.) That Decker will not follow in Hawn's Oscar-winning footsteps is perhaps the safest bet of the cinematic year, or decade.
And what to make of Adam Sandler at this point? Less then two years ago, in Judd Apatow's underrated Funny People, Sandler gave an indelible portrait of self-loathing as a talented comedian seduced by easy money into making childish films for which he felt only contempt. Since then, he has appeared in Grown Ups and now Just Go With It. In Funny People, it took a brush with terminal illness for him to rediscover his craft and his self-respect. One can't help but wonder what it might take in real life. At the moment, I can think of no actor—not even you, Mr. Cage—who makes his living by presuming the lowest common denominator to be quite so low. Just Go With It may be no Cactus Flower, but its star comes off as a prick.