THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE BENCHWARMERS"

The Benchwarmers is another high-concept, lowbrow comedy from Happy Madison, the production company run by Adam Sandler that seems to exist solely to provide work to his friends. Frequent Sandler co-conspirator Rob Schneider plays Gus, a married guy who is (halfheartedly) trying to conceive a child with his wife Liz (Molly Sims). When Gus sees some nerdy kids being tormented by bullies on a local baseball field, he steps in to intervene with the help of his friends. Richie (frequent Happy Madison player David Spade) is a geeky video store clerk with a pageboy haircut and a prepubescent mustache. Clark (Jon Heder) is a mentally challenged paperboy who constantly wears a helmet.

Gus, Richie, and Clark were picked on as children, so they resent these bullies trying to take over the field. The bullies waste no time giving the adults grief when they step in to help. Gus offers to play the kids for the field Ė the three adults taking on the team of nine children. Despite the fact that Richie and Clark have no baseball ability whatsoever, Gusís team wins. A local billionaire named Mel (Jon Lovitz), whose son was one of the kids being tormented, hires Gus and crew to take on other teams of Little League bullies. Their new team is dubbed the Benchwarmers. They take on a seasonís worth of youth team, most of which are now being coached by the same guys who used to torment Richie and Clark in school. Craig Kilborn plays Jerry, the lead offender of these macho jock jerks.

The Benchwarmers is clearly designed to be a vehicle for its stars, but how much you like the film may depend on how much you like them. Personally, Iíve always thought that David Spade is funny only when heís being unabashedly sarcastic. The problem with him as a movie star is that he almost always takes on projects that try to redeem his snarky persona at the end. Thatís what happens again here. He needs to do a movie that is scathing in its humor, one that doesnít try to mold him into a nice-guy role. Iíve always been kind of mixed about Spade; Rob Schneider, on the other hand, has admittedly been a target of my scorn in the past. (If you were one of the unlucky few to see Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, youíll understand why.) To be fair, he comes off as more likeable in this film. Thatís not to say heís funny here, but at least I didnít detest him every time he walked on screen. Yes, I realize thatís a backhanded compliment.

My favorite performance, I guess, came from Jon Heder. Like just about everyone else on the planet, Iím a huge Napoleon Dynamite fan so I have a certain amount of goodwill toward the actor. Itís somewhat disappointing, though, that Clark is essentially the same character as Napoleon, minus the oversize glasses and white-boy Ďfro. Heder gets laughs doing his dumb guy shtick but, after giving another similar performance in last yearís Just Like Heaven, itís time for him to prove that he can do something else.

Iím digressing slightly because he real problem with The Benchwarmers is not the casting; itís the dreariness of the humor. For a movie that purports to celebrate those who are different, the film wastes no time making fun of people with physical and mental handicaps. One character is not only a dwarf, but a dwarf who wears Coke bottle glasses and lives in a cardboard castle in his motherís basement. Another character (a kid) spits profusely whenever he talks. Then thereís Richieís brother Howie (Nick Swardson, a Happy Madison actor/scribe), who is an agoraphobic with an irrational, hysterical fear of sunshine. The afflictions of these characters are mercilessly played for laughs, even though they constitute the ďgood guys.Ē The film also has a nasty homophobic streak. Jerry and the other coaches are all closeted gays who cavort with a boy toy in a Speedo. Itís appalling to me that, in 2006, homosexuality is still used to create derision against movie villains.

The Benchwarmers additionally has a disturbing tendency to repeat the same jokes over and over. Farting and nose picking get multiple mentions, as do scenes in which characters get hit in the face (or groin) with baseballs. To some degree, there is a lack of comic inspiration in the screenplay.

Some things work out better. I liked the Jon Lovitz character, who has used his riches to live every boyís dream: he drives the Batmobile and has a mansion full of original Star Wars memorabilia. I also found some amusement in a wacky training montage where the guys are coached by Reggie Jackson. Rather than legitimate training exercises, he has them develop batting skills by standing in a pickup truck and smashing mailboxes with a bat. There are some other sequences scattered throughout that similarly bypass the grossout/homophobic material, and they are frequently funny. This is proof that The Benchwarmers doesnít need to stoop so low; it earns laughs from the parts that are warmer and more human-centered.

The fact is that there is a good movie buried in here somewhere. It starts off well enough, with the idea of adult victims taking on child bullies. It ends well too, with a finale that is admittedly sappy but still sufficiently feel-good. Itís in the middle that The Benchwarmers falters. The rule of comedy is simple: if you want to make a good-natured family comedy, keep it clean and relatable. If, on the other hand, you want to make a raunchy comedy, go the distance, eschewing the ďniceĒ stuff and the cheap shots. The Benchwarmers doesnít know what it wants to be, so it ends up a mostly unsatisfying mixture of sweet and sour.

( out of four)


The Benchwarmers is rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, and for language. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

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