Director: Dennis Dugan
Cast: Adam Sandler, Cole and Dylan Sprouse, Joey Lauren Adams, Leslie Mann, and Jon Stewart
Watch Big Daddy online in the UK: Netflix UK
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Released around Father’s Day weekend 20 years ago, Big Daddy represents a watershed moment for Adam Sandler. Having scored back-to-back box office hits with The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy in 1998, the star ended the 1990s with a film that positioned itself somewhere between those two, that wound up becoming the biggest hit of his career.
Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a laidback law graduate who’s still dining out on compensation from a traffic accident some years earlier. However, the shiftless so-and-so gets some motivation when 5-year-old Julian (Cole and Dylan Sprouse) is dropped at his door. Initially taking him in to cover for Julian’s biological dad, Kevin (Jon Stewart), and to impress his distinctly unimpressed girlfriend, Vanessa (Kristy Swanson), Sonny comes to care for his young charge.
Sandler’s defenders often claim that he’s making classical Hollywood comedies for a modern audience, and he would later lean further into that with remakes of Mr Deeds Goes to Town and The Longest Yard. With its roots in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Big Daddy is considered one of his best films. Even his staunchest critics would have to admit it’s at least tolerable.
That said, it’s not without some of the more terrible impulses that have come to characterise his more recent work. When this one soars, it’s thanks to the canny, highly watchable, and (yes) MTV Movie Award-winning chemistry between his reluctant father figure and the adorable Sprouse twins as Julian, aka. Little Frankenstein.
Sandler and his regular co-writer, Tim Herlihy, provided some on-brand rewrites to Steve Franks’ script, but the emotional heart of Franks’ story keeps this more grounded than the writing duo’s other efforts. As in Billy Madison, Sandler’s man-child act somehow comes across better when he’s working with actual children. As much as it’s built on immaturity and schmaltz, it’s occasionally very moving.
Elsewhere, although a moment in the climactic courtroom scene foreshadows the reviews for most of the films Sandler has made since – by having a prosecutor protest that “Mr Koufax is simply parading his buddies up there” – even that’s done much better here. Steve Buscemi creates another in a line of inexplicable but massively enjoyable background characters and even Rob Schneider is less annoying than usual here.
Regrettably, this heartfelt ode to fathers and sons is especially lop-sided when it comes to mothers, and women on the whole. The worst of it is a double-edged running joke that positions Hooters as both a fun place for guys to go and an everlasting source of shame for any woman who’s ever worked there. Counter to Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls, a “breastaurant” comedy, this repetitive running gag is just one more way of reminding us that (with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore) the talented women in Sandler’s films aren’t really invited to join in with his boys’ club fun, whether they’re squandered like Leslie Mann or relegated to the endlessly supportive love interest role like Joey Lauren Adams.
Big Daddy is always great when focusing on how Julian changes Sonny, and in turn, Sandler. The film was so warmly received by audiences precisely because it sees one of the 90’s biggest comedy stars growing up to a degree, instead of harnessing sketch characters for feature-length faffing about. It’s telling that Little Nicky immediately followed this, but despite occasionally showing the star at his worst, this film also shows him at his very best.
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix…
“You know there is a saying, a very old saying. When the pupil is ready, the master will appear.”
Big Daddy is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.