In January, the fine folks at Happy Madison Productions inflicted "Grandma's Boy" upon the innocent moviegoing public, the first of about a dozen films this year that have opened without being shown to critics ahead of time.
The same tactic is at work with the release of "The Benchwarmers," a poor man's "Bad News Bears" in which grown-up nerds get retroactive revenge by beating up on bully Little Leaguers on the ballfield.
Yeah, it's as stupid as you would expect. It has more than its fair share of booger jokes and flowing bodily fluids, even for a movie directed by Dennis Dugan ("Happy Gilmore," "Big Daddy") and written by Allen Covert and Nick Swardson (who also co-wrote "Grandma's Boy") - Adam Sandler pals, all.
"Bull Durham," it ain't. And releasing it around the start of the baseball season won't inspire nostalgic longings for the smell of fresh-cut grass and the crack of the bat.
But for a movie whose cast consists of "Saturday Night Live" alums, ESPN "SportsCenter" personalities and the dude from "Napoleon Dynamite," it's surprisingly funny every once in a while in an unabashedly goofy way.
Rob Schneider, David Spade and Jon Heder co-star, with Jon Lovitz playing the billionaire geek with a "Star Wars" fixation who finances their makeshift team. (His character also owns the actual KITT car from "Knight Rider," which still makes snippy computerized comments like, "Try not to destroy me completely, Mel.")
Schneider's Gus is the most socially well-adjusted of the bunch, with an implausibly hot wife (Molly Sims) who's constantly begging him to impregnate her. Spade's Richie works at a video store and is still a virgin at 39; Heder co-stars as Clark, who wears a helmet and knee pads even when he's not riding his bike.
Together, the trio takes down a series of Little League teams, with Gus functioning as a modern-day (and much smaller) Babe Ruth, pitching and slugging his way to victory. Richie and Clark mostly hit themselves in the head with the bat and muff fly balls. The gag gets old fast.
And even though he's ditched the 'fro and the T-shirts with unicorns on them, it's impossible to separate Heder from Napoleon Dynamite, the character that made him a pop culture icon. Every time he opens his mouth and says, "Dang it!" or awkwardly stumbles toward first base - with the bat still taped to his hands - you're reminded of that film, and of the fact that he needs to find a vastly different gig quickly, or risk getting typecast. (It's probably already happened.)
Your natural inclination would be to hate this movie because it is so shamelessly mindless, but here and there a line or an idea makes contact (sorry, had to get just one baseball pun in there). Reggie Jackson shows up and teaches these dweeby guys speed by having them ding-dong-ditch their neighbors. When Jackson arrives at Lovitz's house - wearing a Yankees cap, of course - Clark goes, "Is that Mr. T?" To which Richie responds smugly, "No, it's Dr. Dre."
Then there's the ringer from the Dominican Republic who's brought in to beat the Benchwarmers in the finals. (Naturally, Craig Kilborn plays the arrogant opposing coach.)
He's got to be about 30, he's got a goatee and a child and he's tossing back beers in the woods behind the ballpark, but he has documentation - a photocopied picture of himself with the words "I am 12" scrawled above it in green crayon - which allows him to play.
When he hits his first home run and circles the bases hoisting his country's flag in the air, the image inspired Dominicans in the audience during a recent matinee not only to clap and cheer, but to jump up out of their seats and hug each other as if they'd just witnessed David Ortiz launching a walk-off blast to right field.
And that's when you realize, you know what? Maybe critics really don't matter that much after all.
"The Benchwarmers," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, and for language. Running time: 80 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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