The secret of Adam Sandler's success is still obscure in "Big Daddy," a lackluster but sweet-natured comedy in which the comic phenomenon plays a would-be foster father. The setup is funny, and Sandler is ably supported by one of the cutest moppets to hit screens since Jonathan Lipnicki stole "Jerry Maguire," but why this unexceptional performer is the comic sensation of the year remains a mystery.
Sandler plays Sonny Koufax, a law-school graduate who is leading the life of a committed slacker. Working just one day a week at a toll booth, Sonny shares an enormous SoHo loft with his more ambitious roommate Kevin (Jon Stewart), infusing the pad with Eau d'Frat House, concocted of spilled beer, stale Cheetos and old laundry.
His dream of attaining the Platonic ideal of underachievement is marred only by his girlfriend, who for some reason doesn't think Sonny is exactly settle-down material. "You want a father figure?" he asks her. "Stop pulling your sister's hair!"
So Sonny is dumped. But not for long. Because one day a 5-year-old boy named Julian (played by Cole and Dylan Sprouse) arrives on his doorstep. This particular package is intended for Sonny's roommate, but no matter; Sonny takes over the care and feeding of the child to prove to his girlfriend, his domineering dad and his myriad other detractors that Sonny is, indeed, capable of being a father.
Of course Sonny's idea of parenthood is, shall we say, improvisational: When Julian wets his bed, Sonny's idea of cleaning up is to put down newspapers -- a solution that also comes in handy for spilled milk and any number of other sins. Indulging Julian's whims for junk food, goofy costumes, irregular nap times and regular fixes of a Barney-like kangaroo creature, Sonny explains that his philosophy is to "give the kid options, not orders." A running gag has Sonny teaching Julian how to relieve himself in public places. ("It smells like urine in this joint," Sonny tells Julian upon entering the apartment. "Good job!")
"Big Daddy" offers nothing by way of surprises, throwing the requisite number of obstacles, changes of heart and unexpected love interests in Sonny's path. (Joey Lauren Adams plays a bright lawyer who bonds with Sonny over their mutual adoration of Styxx.) And aside from the Sprouse twins, who are identically endearing as the lisping, wide-eyed Julian, the supporting performances are uniformly half-hearted. Rob Schneider as a very un-funny delivery man is bad enough, but you know a movie is uninspired when Steve Buscemi, who plays a homeless man here, can't even get a laugh.
Still, if "Big Daddy" is no "Kramer vs. Kramer," some of Sonny's perplexed attempts at fathering are amusing ("He won't stop peeing and throwing up. He's like a cocker spaniel," he wails at one point). And the film's underlying theme -- about the expectations, misapprehensions and affections that dance between fathers and sons -- has its own loopy sincerity.
Underneath all the Hooters jokes, stupid sight gags and Sandler's own tedious brand of comedy, "Big Daddy" turns out to have a surprisingly genuine heart.
Starring Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Joey Lauren Adams
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated PG-13 (language and some crude humor)
Running time: 95 minutes
Sun score: **