You know how we’ve all been cutting romantic comedies a break these past few years? It isn’t just me. There’s been a tendency among critics to grade this genre on a curve. We afford extra credit to those rare rom-coms that aren’t completely vulgar and hateful for whatever baby steps they take toward funniness or sexiness or vague resemblance to the actual process of human courtship. I think there’s a reason we’re doing this, an unspoken agreement among those who love this venerable genre that the American romantic comedy is in deep trouble and that we need to band together to protect those precious green shoots that remain.
An excellent example of the kind of movie we’re trying to protect the green shoots from is Just Go With It (Sony Pictures), a comedy so noxious it seems the product of deliberate malignity. Surely the sour, vapid, miserable world of this movie can’t reflect any real human being’s notion of what love or humor or good storytelling is—not even a Hollywood screenwriter’s. The only acceptable explanation for the existence of Just Go With It is that everyone involved in the creation of this movie—the director Dennis Dugan, the co-writers Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling, the entire misused and humiliated cast—hates romantic comedy and wants it to die.
Deliberately extinguishing the genre that’s kept them working would seem an odd career move for Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, but maybe—like Sandler’s character in Judd Apatow’s Funny People—they’re burned out on the life task of making people laugh. Sandler’s performance in Funny People blew me out of the water—his character, a needy and volatile movie star, was the best thing in that flawed but fascinating movie. But Sandler is back to his usual dramatically inert self as Danny, a wealthy plastic surgeon who pretends to be married as a way to pick up younger women. (He complains about his wife’s mistreatment of him, scores a night of pity sex, then has the perfect excuse never to call again.)
“You’re a pig,” Danny is told in no uncertain terms by his assistant, Katherine (Aniston), a down-to-earth divorced mother of two. Yet, inexplicably, Katherine agrees to lend her boss a hand when he finally falls for one of his conquests, the blonde, lithe, and endlessly amiable Palmer (Brooklyn Decker). Danny wants to take it to the next level with Palmer—i.e., not discard her after a single one-night stand—but she will only agree to date him if she can meet his wife in person to confirm their supposedly impending divorce.
You see where this is going. Katherine throws herself into the role of impersonating Danny’s wife, the web of deception widens, and farcical complications ensue. (In fact, Just Go With It is based on a French stage farce that was adapted as the 1969 film Cactus Flower.) Somehow all three members of the triangle—along with Katherine’s two kids and Danny’s cretinous cousin (Nick Swardson)—end up vacationing together at a Hawaiian resort, with everyone except Palmer adopting elaborate fake personas and, in two particularly painful cases, accents. Another wrinkle is added when Katherine’s college nemesis, the hypercompetitive Devlin (Nicole Kidman), turns out to be vacationing at the same resort with her millionaire dud of a husband (Dave Matthews).
Yes, the setup is absurd, but the flimsiness of its premise doesn’t even make the Top 10 list of Just Go With It’s problems. The true source of this movie’s evil lies in what I can only, at the risk of sounding priggish, call its value system. Simply put, all of these people are horrible to each other, and only about 10 percent of that horribleness is ever acknowledged. Every relationship in the film is crassly transactional: When Danny takes Katherine shopping to outfit her for a single appearance as his wife, she exploits the opportunity to the hilt, loading him down with bags containing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases. Later, one of her children blackmails Danny into buying them all tickets to Hawaii; he complies resentfully. None of this angling for expensive presents is presented as greedy or materialistic in the least; it’s just the way people with less money get what they want from people with more. Danny, for his part, takes advantage of his position as sugar daddy to insult and abuse his whole entourage of traveling companions. He’s so consistently awful that, when he briefly manages to treat the children with mildly avuncular jollity, his harem (which is how I came to think of the Aniston/Decker dyad) coos over him as if he’s just cured polio.
Which brings us to the movie’s treatment of women: Hoo boy. Where to begin? Major plot points hinge on the understanding that Jennifer Aniston is a frumpy old hag who can only earn the longed-for prize of being leered at by creeps when she doffs her clothes to reveal an unexpectedly slammin’ bikini body. (The fact that said leering happens in the company of the Aniston character’s son adds an extra-unsavory twist.) In not one but two scenes, one scantily clad woman is explicitly and lengthily compared to another by an audience consisting mainly of men. The second of those scenes—in which Aniston competes in a hula contest with Kidman—also makes a point of casually insulting old or fat women, who are peremptorily booted off the stage for insufficient hotness. As for the movie’s treatment of race, suffice it to say that in those rare moments when Hawaiian and other nonwhite characters appear, they’re generally depicted as obese buffoons.
This is one of those movies in which no subplot or character provides respite from any other; every time the camera cuts away from one scene, you know another equally unpleasant one is coming. As the oversexed, fake-German-accented cousin Eddie, Swardson strains for broad hilarity in every scene, with a rate of success analogous to that of Donald Rumsfeld’s memos. Decker is asked only to remain cheerfully oblivious and near-naked as indignities are visited upon her character. Aniston deploys her trademark cocker-spaniel mannerisms—which in the right context can still be endearing—into the void created by Sandler’s charisma-less presence. And the children are best left unmentioned, for all our sakes. Only Nicole Kidman surprises in a small role that allows her to make fun of her ice-princess public persona—there’s even a plastic-surgery joke at her expense. Kidman must have enjoyed the idea of slumming in a movie so far beneath her pay grade. Too bad the film she chose is unworthy not just of an Oscar-winning actress but of every member of its cast—and its audience.