Snatched: A 2017 Movie That Wishes It Were 1997

The new film, starring Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, is a kidnapping comedy with very little payoff.

Justin Mintz / 20th Century Fox

I imagine the pitch meeting went something like this:

Producer 1: “So the conceit is: A mother and a daughter go on vacation together in Ecuador ...”
Producer 2: “But then: They get kidnapped! And have to escape! In the jungle!”
Producer 1: “Yeah! Think Romancing the Stone! But with a mother and daughter! For a Mother’s Day release, obviously.”
Producer 2: “Obviously. But it’ll be edgy. And funny! Not in, like, a think-y way. Just comedy for comedy’s sake, you know?”
Producer 3: “Wacky!”
Studio Exec 1: “So … they get kidnapped while in Ecuador? You’ll have to be pretty careful about cultural stereotyping here.”
Producer 1: “ … ”
Producer 2: “ … ”
Producer 1: “We think we’ve got Goldie Hawn interested!”
Studio Exec 2: “Oh, that’s great—I’ve missed her.”
Studio Exec 1: “Did you see The Banger Sisters?”
Producer 1: “ … ”
Producer 2: “We’ve got Amy Schumer, too!”
Producer 1: “And she’ll kill in it! No, but literally, she will kill people in this movie.”
Studio Exec 1: “Wow.”
Studio Exec 2: “But she’ll still do her typical Schumer schtick, right? Flaky, raunchy, lots of physical comedy … ?”
Producer 1: “Oh, definitely. I mean, the film’s working title is Snatched.
Producer 2: “Get it?”
Producer 3: “Wacky!”

Wacky it certainly is. And in theory, Snatched might have been great: a buddy comedy with the buddies in question being a mother and a daughter. That most classic of American tales—the road trip story—starring two very funny and talented actors. Adventure, gorgeous scenery, casual feminism, the triumphant cinematic return of Goldie Hawn: Add some rum, blend it up, and you have a reliable recipe for some frothily dizzying summer comedy.

And yet. “I’m not having any fun,” Linda Middleton (Hawn) complains, at one point in Snatched, to her daughter Emily (Schumer), and you can’t help but sympathize with the poor woman: Snatched is a comedy about kidnapping that has also managed to abscond with the laughter.

Things start innocuously enough: Emily is, indeed, the typically Schumerian character: fun-loving, self-absorbed, clueless, sweet, terrible. Having been broken up with by her boyfriend (Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park) just before the two were set to embark on a beach vacation at a resort in Ecuador, Emily convinces her overprotective mother to go with her on the trip in his place. (“We’re gonna put the fun in non-refundable!” is the argument that wins over the tightly wound Linda—after Emily’s insistence that they vacation for “all the single ladies, because it’s upon their shoulders that I’m standing!” fails to do the trick.)

So the Americans arrive in Ecuador, and immediately start bickering about the amount of fun they are going to have together on their non-refundable South American adventure. And then Emily meets James, a charming, smarmy Brit (Tom Bateman). He offers to take Emily and Linda out to explore the area beyond the beach resort. The audience is expected to intuit that this a very bad idea. “Emily, I am not strolling in Ecuador at night,” Linda protests, before her daughter convinces her to do just that—and, as it turns out, the mother is correct to fear the world beyond the Americanized resort: Leaving the safe confines of manufactured fun does prove dangerous for the pair. In short order, the vacationers are roofied, and kidnapped, and kept by their captors in a makeshift and scorpion-ridden cell—as the kidnappers inform Linda’s son and Emily’s brother, the shut-in Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz), that they will not be released until he pays them $100,000.

From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse chase: The women escape, and are captured again, and escape again, and are captured again. It’s a frenetic, confusing journey, too, with the women ending up in Colombia, and then going from town to jungle, with a series of captors, some of whom re-appear and some of whom do not. Very little is explained. But, of course, the details don’t matter much, not just because this isn’t a think-y film, but also because the journey is the destination, and the women, in it, learn so much along the way—if not about the world, then about themselves. Think that, come the end of the movie, each one will have found the inner strength that she never knew she possessed? Think that mother and daughter will have come to value each other as people, and that their relationship will have been renewed? Think that the natives they encounter along the way, in towns and in jungles, will have helped them along in their journey to self-discovery?

You are correct. Snatched was written by Katie Dippold, who also wrote the very of-the-moment movies The Heat and the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters, and was directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50). It has, via its central mother-daughter relationship, the patina of “heart.” In practice, though, this product of 2017 is much more reminiscent of the early-’90s brand of slapstick cinema—the kind of fantasy genre that revels in the yuk and the yuck. The stuff of Adam Sandler in his heyday: aggressively absurd, and cheerfully amoral. In the world of Snatched, physical comedy reins, bodily functions are endless sources of humor, and the thing that matters even more than the love is the lol.

As Emily and Linda attempt to make their way back to the U.S., they kill people, in both self-defense and by cheeky accident, and each death is meant to be a source of low-stakes hilarity. A South American baddie, whom Emily shovels to the head such that, as Linda says, “I could see his brains”? His limp body is played for laughs. Another baddie, whom Emily shoots in the neck with an errant harpoon? Laughs again. Another guy they meet along the way, a man who is trying to help them escape, meets his fate by way of a deep ravine and a structurally unsound jungle vine. And, yep, laughs once more. This is a movie that is, given its creators and its stars—and given its impulses toward the edgy and the raunchy—also surprisingly regressive.

And that’s the case even despite its awareness of the pitfalls of its kidnapped-in-South America premise. Snatched makes a lot of fun of Emily’s terrible Spanish as one element of her initial incuriosity about the country she is visiting for its beaches. (“Siéntate!” she yells at a truck driver, attempting to get him to slow down; later, she mentions that her old coworkers used to call her “puta,” adding, “I don’t know what it means … princess?”) It makes even more fun of her entitlement. During one of Emily and Linda’s attempted escapes, the daughter calls the U.S. State Department. “We are Americans in peril,” she says, “so you have to come get us.” The government representative declines.

The movie also makes broader fun of the xenophobia that could lurk in a script premised on Americans being kidnapped in a developing country. “You can’t let your guard down,” a woman they meet at their beach resort (Wanda Sykes, getting far too little to do here) warns: “One in four tourists in South America are kidnapped.” Emily replies with indignation—“that is not true,” she insists. But then …  she is, yep, kidnapped in South America, thus seeming to prove her new acquaintance’s point.

This kind of self-aware tension runs throughout the movie: in its premise, in its casual killings, in its reliance on smiling natives as instruments of Emily and Linda’s self-discovery. But it’s a low-grade tension, because what Snatched cares about most of all is not making points, but making jokes. About farts, about breasts, about the bodily fluid of whales that might be suggested when a native Spanish speaker pronounces the English word “welcome.” It’s a sensibility that can occasionally lead to very funny moments—Emily gets a tapeworm, and the removal of the extremely long parasite is excruciating and uproarious—but is for the most part simply cringeworthy. (Unless you find it funnier than I do that, in this film, Colombia is referred to—repeatedly—as “the Sac of the Jaguar.”) The schtick that has become Schumer’s trademark—jokes about her appearance, meant to defuse jokes about her appearance—is also on display. “Your tit’s out,” her date tells her. “Your tit’s out, too,” she drunkenly replies. “No,” he insists, “your tit has actually … emerged.”

Such jokes are treated, in the movie, as subversive; they read, though, as terribly tired. Emily and Linda briefly worry that they will be sold into sex slavery. A man they encounter assures Emily that she shouldn’t be concerned: When it comes to sex traffickers, he says, “those kind of people will want young, beautiful females … your poofy face will protect you.”

It’s funny, sort of. It’s wacky, a little. And maybe the producers here did, indeed, aim for “comedy for comedy’s sake.” But Snatched isn’t stand-up; it’s a movie with a story to tell, and characters to embody. And in this version of South America—in this (teehee?) Sac of the Jaguar—a “your tit’s out” is considered good comedy. Some people are expendable, and some people are not. Two clueless Americans will be free, whatever collateral damage they might inflict along the way, and that will be the happy ending. There may be many, many jokes along the way. A couple may be good ones. And they—and the draw of Schumer and Hawn, as stars—may be in themselves worth the price of admission. For the most part, though, Snatched is a trip very much like the one it portrays: one that, in the end, does a pretty poor job of putting the “fun” in “unrefundable.”