Film Review: Bedtime Stories

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Has Adam Sandler been defanged? "Bedtime Stories" is his first family-friendly comedy, not to mention his first for the Disney banner. But if Sandler can startle us in a dark, obsessive role like "Punch-Drunk Love," he can surprise us here, too. In a modern-day fairy tale about hopes, aspirations and family, Sandler displays a winning form under the light and mischievous direction of "Bringing Down the House's" Adam Shankman.

While not being pitched exclusively as a Christmas movie, "Stories" makes a better Christmas movie than those generic comedies manufactured this time of year. The hits-to-misses ratio for its gags is above average, the sentimentality is kept in check and the film plays well to its audience. It winks nicely at parents and smiles broadly to children. Disney might have a Christmas hit with this late-arriving sleigh ride.

Sandler is playing his usual underachiever, though a tad less angry and a bit more wistful than his raunchier characters. His dad (Jonathan Pryce in an scene-setting cameo) once ran a motel in Hollywood. Alas, he was forced to sell to a germaphobic hotelier (Richard Griffiths). His son now works as a handyman at the high-rise luxury hotel that occupies the spot.

When his sister (Courteney Cox) loses her job as a school principal, she pages her brother to share baby-sitting chores with a friend (Keri Russell) while she goes on a job interview out of state. Having been strangely estranged from his niece and nephew (Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit), his only child-minding skill resides in an ability to spin bedtime stories.

These are particularly memorable since Sandler channels his career angst into these tales. They range from a medieval castle to the Old West and outer space, but the theme of the peasant who would be a prince is ever present. The hero strives to get a better job and win over a maiden, always besting an opponent that looks suspiciously like the hotel's obsequious manger (Guy Pearce).

Soon the children are contributing to and even editing his stories. (They prefer happy endings.) Then, weirdly, the stories start coming true in real life. Or at least parts of them do. Now if Sandler could just figure out how this happens. For he seems to be making progress against the manager, even winning over his party-girl girlfriend (Teresa Palmer), who just happens to be the hotelier's daughter.

Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy's screenplay never can quite determine the how and why of these magical transformations. But they do fully exploit the comic opportunities of a man who has stumbled upon a potential winning formula but isn't sure how to game the system. This is a strong vehicle for Sandler's comic gifts, one that surrounds him with frequently amusing characters.

Particularly strong are British comic Russell Brand as a best pal hotel waiter, Russell as a feisty romantic interest and the two youngsters who devote considerable thought to improving these fairy tales. And a trained guinea pig, who plays the children's pet, is the go-to guy for all kinds of silly laughs.

Missed opportunities include Pearce, who is a touch strident in his comic style, and Lucy Lawless, who feels miscast as Pearce's sidekick in mild villainy. There also is the film's odd tendency to follow up a really smart gag with a really dumb one.

Still, the overall feeling engendered by "Bedtime Stories" is exactly that -- a story long on imagination and short on logic that brings on smiles and dreams of sugar plums dancing in the head.
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