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A more mature Sandler tests fatherly charm in mediocre 'Big Daddy'

He's ba-aaaaaack. Only this time, he's grown up. Well, okay, just a little bit.

He is Adam Sandler, whose bag of man-child schtick has turned him into one of Hollywood's $20 million-men, emerging in his fifth leading role in "Big Daddy."

Unsurprisingly, there is not a whole lot of ingenuity to be found here, but Sandler fans should nonetheless walk away feeling satisfied. He plays Sonny Koufax, another ne'er-do-well with the potential for greatness.

Sonny graduated from law school but after winning a large sum of money in a cab accident several years earlier (the cab ran over his foot), he has taken up the job of professional lounger. That's not quite true. He works one day out of the week in a tollbooth.

When his girlfriend of over a decade ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Kristy Swanson) finally dumps the lug, Sonny seizes an opportunity to show her that he is ready for some stability in his life. He takes care of Julian (twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse), the five-year-old son of his roommate, Kevin (Jon Stewart).

There are two problems here. First of all, Kevin (nor anyone else in his life, for that matter) knew about Julian's existence. The child was suddenly left at Kevin's house by Kevin's ex-flame. The second problem is that Kevin has just boarded a plane for his new job in China.

Turning apples into apple juice, Sonny decides to make Julian into his newest friend until Social Services can find a foster family for the child. He lets Julian do, eat and wear virtually whatever he desires.

Everyone can see where this movie is going. Eventually, Julian will recognize his own paternal instinct and will even become a responsible citizen. To complete the formula, a new woman enters the picture (Joey Lauren Adams).

But none of this really matters. In telling Steve Franks' tried-and-true story, Sandler is able to work his magic and endear himself to the audience. The mid-section of the film, in which Sonny and Julian bond during their misadventures in New York City, is an unquestionable delight.

Furthermore, the Sprouse twins are suitably adorable. They successfully steal every scene in which one of them appears. Armed with a stutter and a voice that sounds as though it is about to break into a river of tears, Julian is the latest in a cycle of roles in which the child is smarter than the average adult.

The film's formula works well until director Dennis Dugan (who also spearheaded Sandler's "Happy Gilmore") steers the last third of the film off-course, turning a series of fun scenes of toilet humor and ethnic slurs into a rather silly custody trial. The best that can be said of this turn of events is that it gives the marvelous Joseph Bologna ("Blame it on Rio") more screen time as Sonny's condescending father.

Additionally, Stewart actually manages to one-up Sandler in his few scenes in "Big Daddy." As Kevin, he is confident and poised in a manner previously undisplayed in his film work.

But the best performance in the film comes from Adams as Layla, Sonny's romantic interest. Adams gave a beautifully subtle performance two years ago in the complicated "Chasing Amy." Here, her job is much harder: She must not let Sandler's constant mugging overshadow her. The miracle is that she pulls it off gracefully.

In what has become a Sandler tradition, Steve Buscemi appears in two scene-stealing roles--an illiterate immigrant deliveryman and a homeless man. Unfortunately, even these scenes are less inspired than his cameos in "The Wedding Singer" and "The Waterboy."

Such lack of inspiration is ultimately what prevents "Big Daddy" from being the laugh riot that Sandler's earlier films were. But Dugan, Franks and Sandler instead opt for a sensitivity missing from Sandler's earlier movies (except for "The Wedding Singer").

"Big Daddy" won't go down as a particularly memorable piece of work. Movies of this caliber only live in the moment. But it is worth taking advantage of the moment and catching this belated Father's Day treat.

Grade: B-

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