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Michael Fassbender in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ which debuted with $91 million to beat last weekend’s No. 1 ‘Godzilla’. (AP)
‘Blended’ above-average Sandler film Owen, Binoche chemistry keeps ‘Words’ afloat

Despite having all the charisma of a booger-eater at his bar mitzvah, Adam Sandler has starred in two of the most fondly remembered (if not actually good) romantic comedies of the past couple of decades: “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates.” Whatever endurance those two films have beyond their original purpose as money-printing machines can and should be credited to Drew Barrymore, whose sunny, bubbly, wildflowers-in-her-hair presence lent those pictures a sense of warmth and optimism sorely lacking in any other Sandler effort. After the high-profile flops of “Jack and Jill” and “That’s My Boy,” the three-time Razzie winner is still piecing his box-office reputation back together. Thus we have a virtual freebie for Happy Madison: a third film with Barrymore, the farting angel whose earthy goofiness perfectly complements Sandler’s man-child puerility.

Though it’s every bit as formulaic as you’d expect it to be, “Blended” is much better than Barrymore and Sandler’s previous collaborations by leaps and bounds. That’s because Barrymore gets to do a lot more than bat her eyelashes and laugh at Sandler’s jokes here, resulting in a tonal tug-of-war between the his-and-her stories that expands the film in enjoyable ways, even if the work doesn’t quite feel cohesive. Barrymore’s Lauren is a lot pricklier than the actress’ previous incarnations, a Kate Spade-clad divorced mother of two young boys (Braxton Beckham and Kyle Red Silverstein) who lashes out at the chaos of her domestic life by rigorously organizing other people’s closets for a living. She meets schlumpy widowed sports-store manager Jim (Sandler) on an ill-fated blind date at Hooter’s, wherein he chugs her drink while she’s in the bathroom looking for an excuse to go home.

Angry that her night went so awry, Lauren finally asks Jim, “With so many possible reasons, which one’s the one your wife left you for?” “Cancer,” he retorts, just as eager to bruise. A few weeks and a barely believable series of coincidences later, Lauren and her sons end up sharing a suite in a South African resort with Jim and his daughters: teenage Larry (short for Hilary, played by Bella Thorne), still-mourning Espn (named after the channel, played by Emma Fuhrmann), and blond moppet Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind). Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera’s script gives the big, dumb physical gags to Sandler and the boys, but mines some real poignancy, even some melancholy, from Lauren’s kindly introduction to Larry into the ways of girlhood and from Espn’s insistence that she can see her dead mother everywhere. Lauren’s foul-mouthed BFF-ship with her proudly loud gal pal Jen (an underused Wendi McLendon-Covey) recall the best parts of “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.”

But “Blended” director Frank Coraci, a Happy Madison vet, is too much of a company man to elevate this passion-phobic rom-com beyond something more than an above-average Sandler production. Every expectation of a gross-out surprise between a pair of lovers is immediately fulfilled; the film shrinks from intimacy like a snail avoiding human touch. Barrymore is as luminous as ever, but Sandler hides in his own movie under muumuu-like T-shirts and distracted grimaces. The two screen pros still have barrelfuls of chemistry, but it’s difficult to root for love between a sloth and a butterfly.

Then there’s the uncomfortable and constant slur-slinging against supposedly ugly and/or flat-chested women. Sandler might claim he’s an equal-opportunity insulter - Larry’s skinny romantic interest (Zak Henri) receives more than his share of abuse, too - but the chauvinistic cracks go a long way in undoing the strong moments of female solidarity scattered throughout the movie. “Blended” features too many great performances to earn Sandler a fourth Razzie win, or even a tenth Razzie nod, but he won’t have to wait long for his next Golden Raspberry if he can’t think of anything funnier than playground insults for his next film.

If “Which is more important — words or pictures?” sounds to you like the kind of pointless debate that a roomful of stoned college freshmen might engage in late one night, you’re right. Somehow, this non-pressing issue (spoiler: they’re both essential) becomes the plot driver of “Words and Pictures,” a sloppy, glossy movie that thoroughly wastes the talents of its exceedingly charismatic performers, Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen. Their combined chemistry keeps this movie afloat far longer than it should, but not even they (and the considerable skill of director Fred Schepisi) can bring it into port. Set at a tony New England prep school, “Words and Pictures” sets up a merry rivalry between Jack (Owen) and Dina (Binoche). Jack’s a hard-drinking novelist who’s never lived up to the promise of his first novel, and he’s no longer the eager visionary the school once hired, even though he’s the sort of pedant who likes to play word games with his colleagues and interrupt their conversations with fun facts about etymology.

Newcomer Dina is a world-renowned artist who has been stricken with rheumatoid arthritis; she valiantly attempts to paint in her condition, but her physical limitations have gotten in the way of her muse, making her short-tempered and borderline bitter. Sensing that his job is on the line, Jack decides to fire up his students by beginning a rivalry with Dina, based on the notion that words are more important than pictures. Each uses their not-inconsiderable skills and wit to promote their own medium, and in the process, these battling co-workers come to respect one another. If the text vs image battle had merely remained in the background, used as a springboard to drive the characters’ actions, that would be one thing, but the screenplay by Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon,” “Message in a Bottle”) tediously brings it up over and over again, as though this were “A Tree Falls in a Forest: The Movie.”

That’s only one of this script’s massive sins; the students are mostly treated as an anonymous mass, and even the ones who are given any kind of personality are shunted off to the side until the storyline needs them. Worse still, the movie wants to be slick and breezy, making it all the more jarring when, say, Jack goes from charming-drunk to disastrous alcoholic, or when shy young female student Emily (Valerie Tian) is subjected to vicious verbal and online harassment by her peers. “Words and Pictures” never accrues enough emotional resources to bear out the darker, heavier moments, which turns its big dramatic moves into clunky embarrassments. Worst of all, after attempting to go dark, the film then turns around and ties everything up in a nice big bow, even throwing in a contrived scene where Owen and Binoche laugh together; the moment resembles the end of an episode of “Chips” — all that’s missing is the freeze-frame. Still, if “Words and Pictures” has anything going for it, it’s the efforts of its two leads.

Binoche imbues Dina with ferocious intelligence and independence; she may be adjusting to her new circumstances, but she resolutely defies anyone to pity her. It’s also worth pointing out that Binoche does a lot of actual painting here, and it looks convincing; none of that shooting-over-a-stand-in’s-shoulder for her. (RTRS) As for Owen, he uses his natural charm to demonstrate how Jack has managed to maintain his shambolic life for so long and gotten away with it. He seduces and then repels the audience, but the richness of this portrayal is more than this flimsy movie can bear. The pictures are fine here — cinematographer Ian Baker, a frequent Schepisi collaborator, gives the school that honeyed, preppy glow — but the words could have used a lot more work.

By Inkoo Kang

By: Inkoo Kang

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