That’s My Boy is one of the most disgusting, morally reprehensible films I have ever had the displeasure of sitting through. It asks us to laugh at situations any sane human would find horrific, and desires our sympathy for detestable characters, all without having anything intelligent, meaningful, or the least bit redeeming to say about its subject matter. Shocking the audience may be one of the cornerstones of intelligent comedy, but offending without insight or reason is the bedrock of lowbrow humor. That’s My Boy falls several cavernous steps beneath lowbrow. It may, in fact, establish the bottom of the comedy barrel for several generations to come. In eight years of reviewing movies, no film has ever made me as angry as I am right now.
Fair warning: I shall, to the very best of my ability, spoil That’s My Boy throughout this review. This is for several reasons. First, I cannot express my honest moral outrage over the sins this abomination commits if I do not give proper context. Second, and more importantly, I want to disincentivize my readers from spending money on this movie as much as I possibly can. This is for your benefit, not mine. My spirit has already been broken. But yours is still whole, and untainted, and you can avoid feeling like a horrible person for the rest of your life so long as you don’t reward the filmmakers with your hard-earned cash.
I sat in horror, with my jaw wide open, during the entirety of the film’s opening sequence. In it, an eighth-grade boy named Donny Berger (later played as an adult by Adam Sandler) is seduced by his attractive adult teacher, and they have sex. Not just once, as the film’s trailers imply. No, this becomes an affair. It seems to go on for months. She trains this thirteen-year-old kid in various sex acts, and they carry on until they are caught doing it in front of the entire school. After they are found out, it turns out Donny has impregnated the teacher with a child.
Let us stop for a moment. In the real world, this is known as pedophilia. If you require a stricter definition where the label does not apply to children going through puberty, it is still legally defined as molestation, or statutory rape. No matter what you call it, the teacher is sexually attracted to a child. Though the sex is technically consensual, I think I speak for all moral people – be you religious, atheistic, liberal, conservative, old, young, etc. – in saying that this does not excuse one iota of the teacher’s actions, and that the entire scenario is absolutely horrifying.
In the real world, the lives of all involved would be ruined. Donny would likely become an extremely disturbed teenager – either because of the rape or the extensive media coverage, take your pick – requiring years of intensive counseling to regain the ability to engage in healthy human relationships. Numerous staff members at his school would be fired or imprisoned for allowing this to happen. The community would become terrified that other teachers were abusing their children in this manner. Education campaigns would likely be launched nationwide to explain the dangers of statutory rape. It would be a scandal of the highest order. And right in the eye of the storm would be this innocent little baby, conceived by a disturbed adult woman and a confused little boy, who would likely be tossed around America’s highly dysfunctional foster care system for the entirety of a dark, ruinous childhood.
It makes me sick to even think of it. If I read about this story in the news, I would feel terrible to think that such things could be happening in our world.
But That’s My Boy does not exist in our world. It exists in a world where pre-teen Donny becomes a national hero for screwing his teacher, celebrated not only by his classmates, but by media and strangers all across America. Talk-show deals and a TV movie make him rich. The teacher is, at least, sent to prison, but not before she and Donny profess their undying love for each other. This isn’t even presented as a joke; Donny and his teacher’s love are something we’re meant to view as emotionally valid, so much so that when the film’s climax roles around, it’s an adult Donny who gets to give the big speech on what it means to be in love.
I despised That’s My Boy by the time the title appeared. That’s how long it took for me to become ethically appalled that a major Hollywood studio spent tens of millions of dollars producing, promoting, and releasing a movie that, in its first ten minutes, teaches us that statutory rape and criminal molestation are acts worth celebrating. Make no mistake, this is the message. Even if it’s not what the filmmakers intended, even if it’s presented in the guise of a comedy, when you look at what the film is actually saying, its message is that we should be proud of those who take advantage of children. And I am absolutely not okay with that.
If you have read my work before, you know I ardently believe comedians should be allowed to go as far as they need to get their message across. If you are an intelligent artist with substantive material, there is no such thing as crossing the line. That’s My Boy pole-vaults over the hypothetical line right off the bat because it goes to an extreme place without rhyme or reason. It is not satire. It is not social commentary. It doesn’t even qualify as shock humor, because that brand of comedy relies on brevity, and the student-teacher relationship is depicted for a sizable chunk of the film’s opening. The only thing being conveyed during the pre-credits sequence is that statutory rape is awesome, and when that’s the crucial takeaway, the viewer has the right to be truly offended.
But here’s the thing: even if That’s My Boy starts with one of the most disgusting premises in movie history, there’s no reason a talented filmmaking team couldn’t right the ship over the next two hours. This is a long movie. There’s plenty of time for an adult Donny to learn his lesson, or at least for the movie to use Donny to underline the disturbing nature of the early jokes.
Suffice it to say, That’s My Boy doesn’t travel in this direction. Instead, it spends the next 100 or so minutes underlining the deplorable message of its opening sequence, reinforcing again and again what an awesome guy Donny is for sleeping with his teacher, and what a pill his son has become for rejecting the family’s good name.
The father-son dynamic is, of course, the actual focus of the movie. As an adult, Donny has become an alcoholic screw-up. Owing $43,000 in back-taxes, he decides to track down the estranged, now-successful adult son he conceived with his teacher to ask for help. Actually, it’s worse than that. Donny plans on finding his son and tricking him to appear in a reality TV special so Donny can earn a $50,000 paycheck.
Keep in mind, this is the man we are supposed to want the son to give a second-chance to.
When we meet the son (played by Andy Samberg), it’s clear he’s had a hell of a time getting his life back on track after a childhood filled with criminal neglect. To get on with his life, he has changed his name to Todd Peterson, and come up with a backstory about his parents being killed in an explosion at a young age. He is dependent on anti-depressants and anxiety medication to get through the day. He is severely diabetic, since his father never monitored his eating as a child. He has numerous social ticks he cannot rid himself of. He has space issues and difficulty relating to others. It’s implied he has no real friends.
But Todd has, at least, become a successful hedge-fund manager, and he’s engaged to a beautiful woman. So he’s got something going for him; that is until Donny shows up a few days before Todd’s wedding, throwing a wrench into everything.
Here’s where That’s My Boy really gets me furious. Instead of having the decency to portray Donny as an antagonist Todd should probably rid himself of, the film becomes a lengthily lesson in why it was horrible of Todd to disown his father. Sure, Donny mistreated him so thoroughly that Todd is barely fit to live in society, but Donny truly loves his son, so in the film’s warped mindset, that magically makes all his worldly sins disappear. How dare Todd abandon him!
Once Donny reinserts himself in Todd’s life, the movie becomes a series of comedic set-ups and punch lines, all of them too mean-spirited to be funny. Donny does something rude or embarrassing; Todd tries to brush him aside or mend the situation; everyone “surprisingly” loves Donny for it and finds Todd’s actions out of line. Wash, rinse, repeat. For a long, long time.
After the seventh or eighth skit in this vein, and after the dozenth time Donny tells his son to lighten up and be more like him, it becomes clear the movie itself wants us to stop sympathizing with Todd and start feeling for poor, hopeless Donny, whose cruel son just won’t open up to him. Why does Todd have to be such a responsible individual, anyway? Why can’t he go drink and whore himself into an early grave like any respectable person would? What’s wrong with this kid?
Oh, right, he was a victim of extreme, possibly criminal neglect. I guess the film just forgot about that particular detail.
Todd does, of course, eventually come around to Donny’s way of thinking, and the happy father and son walk off into the sunset together to seek strip clubs greener. Before that so-called ‘happy’ ending can occur though, That’s My Boy must force itself into remarkable contortions to convince us Donny is the hero of this story. How do they do this? They attempt to show us someone worse than Donny, and by some strange logic I don’t quite understand, that makes him noble.
See, it turns out Todd’s fiancé, Jamie (Leighton Meester) is having an incestuous sexual affair with her brother. Because Donny finds out about this and alerts Todd before he says “I do,” Donny is the hero and a grateful Todd abandons Jamie to hang out with his father. The twist is predicated on the idea that, while criminal molestation may be bad, incest is clearly worse. That’s the movie’s logic, not mine; characters say something to that effect several times.
And you know what? THAT is where I draw the line.
The filmmakers have clearly never heard the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I fail to see how Jamie’s disturbing sexual perversion is supposed to make Donny’s disturbing sexual perversion less….well, disturbing. But that’s the way the movie frames it, putting two extreme sexual misdeeds head-to-head as some sort of sick, twisted contest, and directly telling us, the audience, which one they think is morally favorable.
And if they want to turn sexual deviancy into a game so ridiculously asinine, then fine. Allow me to offer a rebuttal to their argument: I contend that it’s less disturbing for two consenting adults to have incestuous sex, given that both of them fully understand the consequences of their actions, than it is for a 30-year-old to screw a 13-year-old who barely understands what sexual intercourse even is. Neither action is good. Not by any means. But one is clearly more destructive than the other in the film’s context, since Donny’s misdeeds created a child who grew up with all sorts of psychological, medical, and social issues. At the very, very least, Jamie didn’t ruin anyone else’s life by doing her brother.
Thus, I return to my original point: By positioning Donny as the hero, forcing Todd to come around to his way of thinking, and defining the concept of ‘love’ through a teacher-student sexual encounter, That’s My Boy promotes criminal molestation as something fun, frivolous, and that brings fathers and sons closer together.
Excuse me while I go throw up.
That’s My Boy doesn’t even have the basic human decency to weave clever jokes among the moral devastation. The writing is stale, stupid, and juvenile, often resorting to lame, worn-out sex jokes we’ve seen in a million other, better comedies. The most frequent recurring gag involves an old lady saying raunchy things; Betty White beat them to that punch years ago, and continues to do it better.
The jokes also leap into deeply racist territory at times, passing off hateful statements about Asian and African Americans while making sure every minority actor is instructed to play a ridiculous stereotype or caricature. And don’t even get me started on the rampant, unending misogyny on display in every last frame. When That’s My Boy isn’t objectifying women as objects for alcoholic men to play with, it’s making broad, spiteful generalizations about them that sickened me to my very core.
All of this being said, credit must go where it is due, and I was impressed by several people involved with the film. Andy Samberg is very good as Todd; even if he’s saddled with a thankless and often frustrating part, he imbues it with an authentic degree of humanity, and got a couple pity chuckles out of me along the way. Leighton Meester deserves credit for doing similar things with Jamie, and none of the supporting cast stands out in negative ways.
But when it comes to Adam Sandler, I just don’t know what to think any more. He’s not bad in this movie. The man’s never been anything less than a watchable screen presence, and that continues here. But his character is so thoroughly unlikable, so deeply, inherently wretched from start-to-finish, that I can’t help but wonder what Sandler thinks he’s doing with his career. A decade ago, he was known for playing comedy’s most lovable characters: Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, etc. Sandler movies weren’t always good, but his characters always felt heartwarming and likable. Yet for the least five or six years now, dating back to Click and possible further, he’s played nothing but vile misanthropes, and I have no interest in watching that any more.
That’s My Boy signals a new phase in his career. As a film, it is just as misanthropic as Sandler’s characters have become. It hates the sane characters; it hates the demented characters; it hates subtle comedy; it hates intelligent subtext; it hates the idea of healthy sexual relations; it hates laughs that arise organically from the characters; it hates minorities, fat people, and women; and above all else, it hates the audience, and shows it by delivering nothing but repulsive drivel.
And you know what? I hate it right back. That’s My Boy is the worst film of 2012.
And yes, Columbia, you can use that as a pull-quote.