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Grown-Ups are anything but, Mother and Child is about (and for) grown-ups

by Mark Burger

Grown-Ups is a latter-day riff on the 1983 classic The Big Chill, in which a bunch of old friends — whose relationship was cemented “back in The Day” (in this case, 1978) — who are reunited to bid farewell to a friend, while trying to reconnect with each other.

As the major roles are played by Adam Sandler (also co-writer and producer), Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Kevin James, it’s clear that this head-first dive into nostalgia will be fraught with farce.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case.

Predictable, yes. Ridiculous, undoubtedly. Silly. Grown Ups is all of these things and more (and less), but it’s not without its admittedly palpable, lowbrow appeal.

Having won a local basketball championship as kids those 30-odd years ago, our heroes return to their Massachusetts roots to attend their coach’s funeral and spend the Fourth of July weekend together, getting reacquainted. Now, of course, they come with wives (including Salma Hayek, Maya Rudolph, Maria Bello and Joyce Van Patten) and myriad children in tow.

Needless to say, much slapstick wackiness ensues.

Dennis Dugan, a long-time Sandler collaborator, directs in his usual bland style, allowing the actors to drive the story along while wedging in whatever gag happens to be at hand. Finesse is not an issue. Speedy delivery is. At least this time around, more than a few of the gags are funny.

Not surprisingly, there’s an easygoing camaraderie among the principal players, due in no small part to their “Saturday Night Live” roots. Schneider, Spade, Rock and particularly Sandler have achieved some measure of success on the big screen — regularly in movies whose titles do not bear repeating, or even remembering — and there is a warmth (with just a hint of competition) among them.

Nevertheless, Rock, who seemed similarly displaced among the ensemble of the recent Death at a Funeral, is by far the most subdued here, and even seems to disappear into the background. Fortunately, his onscreen wife is played by Rudolph (another “SNL” alum), who makes the most out of a role that doesn’t begin to take advantage of her versatility. Given that Rudolph was pregnant during filming (as is her character), however, she’s more than entitled to take it a little easy.

James, a small-screen success in his own right (“The King of Queens”) is not an unwelcome addition to the ensemble, although it’s not difficult to envision the late Chris Farley in his role (albeit more maniacally played).

Fellow “SNL” veterans Colin Quinn and Tim Meadows show up (look fast for Norm Macdonald, too), as does Steve Buscemi, merrily making a fool of himself in what is basically the role of the village idiot. Surprisingly, Schneider does not shout “You can do it!” as he has done in so many Sandler movies in the past. All in all, Grown Ups is about what you’d expect, although not the worse for it.

As the title clearly implies, writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child is a study of the relationship between mother and child, as experienced by three women who occupy center stage throughout the film.

Karen (Annette Bening) is a middle-aged woman who, as a teenager, gave her child up for adoption. This sense of loss intensifies when her own mother (Eileen Ryan) dies, she having demanded that Karen give the baby up. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a high-powered attorney, adopted as a child (hmmm…), adamant about no emotional ties, and now dedicated to her career and impulsive love affairs. Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a young woman unable to have children of her own, and extremely eager to dive into the adoption process, even if her husband (David Ramsey) isn’t so eager.

Garcia smoothly rotates the narrative between the principal characters. It’s clear that their fates will cross, either directly or indirectly, and it’s the how and the when that form the crux of the piece. To divulge much more about how the threads connect would likely spoil a number of pleasures throughout the film, not the least of which are the performances.

Bening, Watts and Washington all deliver deeply felt, sometimes risky, turns that attest to their abilities, and there’s good supporting work (even in the smallest roles) by the likes of Cherry Jones, particularly heartfelt as a hard-working nun who supervises adoptions; Elpidia Carrillo, Tatyana Ali, S Epatha Merkerson (as Washington’s wise mom), Amy Brenneman, Lawrence Pressman, Shareeka Epps, LaTanya Richardson, Michael Warren, Marc Blucas, Carla Gallo, David Morse and Lisa Gay Hamilton.

Of particular note are Jimmy Smits, a little beefier these days, as the co-worker who wins Karen’s heart, and Samuel L. Jackson as Elizabeth’s new boss, a sensitive and complex man with whom she soon shares an intimate relationship that further paves the path of the story.

After having kept excessive sentiment at bay in an admirable fashion, Mother and Child eventually does succumb to its more melodramatic impulses in the latter stages of the story.

By this time, however, the actors have so thoroughly invested themselves in the (nicely complex) characters that it doesn’t negate the story’s power. This is a first-rate ensemble, delivering first-rate turns down the line. Even at its soapiest, Mother and Child is sincere, effective, grown-up fare. It’s something of a tearjerker, to be sure, but the tears it wrings are not undeserved.

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