It's amazing how the success of a single film can radically alter the course of an actor's career. Granted, the sleeper smash 'Napoleon Dynamite' may not have turned Jon Heder from "John Who?" into a household name, but almost overnight it did transform him from just another unknown young actor toiling away in little-seen B-pictures into the new heir apparent of crazy comedy a la Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Rob Schneider. Though there is no telling how high Heder's career trajectory will take off from here, I have to hand it to the guy -- he's become the most popular ex-'Saturday Night Live' actor to make it big in the movies who didn't actually get his start on 'Saturday Night Live.'
Certainly, Heder would have never landed 'The Benchwarmers' if it wasn't for 'Napoleon Dynamite.' He's also more of the supporting player here -- this baseball-dingbat comedy is really a vehicle for the aging shtick of Rob Schneider and David Spade. But the two ex-'SNL'ers find themselves more or less upstaged by their young co-star, and if there has ever been a more classic changing-of-the-guard movie than this, I can't think of it.
The plot of a Rob Schneider movie is usually besides the point, but I'll give it a try anyway. Lifelong pals Gus (Schneider, the lovable loser and father), Richie (Spade, the hopeless romantic) and Clark (Heder, pretty much playing Napoleon Dynamite again) have been picked on since childhood by the kind of bullies that only exist in episodes of 'The Brady Bunch.' But now they're not going to take it anymore -- and to get even, they're gonna beat to a pulp the meanest Little League teams that ever lived. With the help of local guru and trainer Mel (Jon Lovitz), these sad sacks will go the distance and stand up for all those kids who got sand kicked in their faces. Whadda think -- will Richie get the girl, Clark hit a home run and Gus teach his own bullied son how to stand up for himself?
If 'The Benchwarmers' sounds a bit like a reheated Adam Sandler comedy, that's because it is. A product of Sandler's Happy Madison production company, it was also co-written by his frequent collaborator Allen Covert, and directed by Dennis Dugan, who helmed 'Happy Gilmore' and 'Big Daddy.' Sure, it's okay that Sandler doesn't want to star in every script his production company produces, but since Schneider (and to a lesser extent, Spade) have always come off as the poor man's versions of Sandler, 'The Benchwarmers' would seem to suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex.
Still, much of the film made me laugh. Yes, the plot is insignificant, the love story hollow and the hoped-for third act poignancy between Gus and his son just doesn't ring true. But it hardly matters -- this is another of those "zany" 'SNL'-esque films that is all about goofy actors doing going goofy characters whether or not it makes sense. (I gave up on trying to count all the fart jokes and gay jokes and how many times Heder made that slack-jaw Napoleon Dynamite face after the first twenty minutes.) Still, I did wish the story had at least a little more to do with its subject matter -- why do a movie about grown adults playing little league baseball if you don't milk the scenario for more laughs? Oftentimes the plot and the actors veer off into their own tangents, doing riffs or jokes that are funny but scattershot. Again, I laughed, but a little focus would have helped.
Seeing that 'The Benchwarmers' is the cinematic equivalent of a Twinkie, perhaps it will be looked back upon as a transition point in Heder's ascension to a leading comic actor. Admittedly, he's going to have to expand his limited range if he hopes to go any farther, but I couldn't help but watch 'The Benchwarmers' and not feel how tired Schneider and Spade's routine now seems -- Heder at least has that youthful fire and outrageousness going for him. And given that the last couple of "hits" Schneider and Spade had were the weakly-received 'Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo' and 'Dickie Roberts,' I bet they'll be working for Heder's production company in no time flat.
Now that we are a few weeks past the launch of Blu-ray, of course the hope is that with each new title the format will only produce better and better transfers. Unfortunately, this is another spotty presentation from Sony, which has some nice moments but just doesn't the deliver the kind of wow factor I expect from great high-def.
There are positives, of course. The print is nice and clean as a new movie should be, with dead-on blacks and generally strong contrast. Colors are also fairly well saturated, though not quite as vivid as the better recent transfers I've seen. I also noticed some apparent noisiness at times on hard-to-reproduce hues like deep reds and blues. Detail is also fairly good if still lacking overall, with the image looking flat most of the time. Some subtleties are visible (most impressive are the brightly-lit daytime baseball sequences) but it never quite achieves the level of three-dimensionality of the best high-def.
Also a problem is pixelization and edginess. I noticed fairly frequent ringing on the lines of the baseball diamond in a couple of shots, as well as some color banding in areas with color gradations, such as horizons. I don't know if this has to do with the fact that Sony is currently using MPEG-2 compression on its Blu-ray titles and this release comes stuffed with extras (see below), but I expect a bit better from pre-recorded HD these days.
(Note: As originally reported by The Digital Bits, some users have experienced poor image quality when viewing Blu-ray discs on the Samsung first-generation BD-P1000 Blu-ray disc player when connected via the deck's HDMI output. Apparently these problems, including decreased resolution and diluted color reproduction, are largely corrected when switching to the BD-P1000's component outputs.
It has also been confirmed that both Samsung and Sony are now aware of the issue, and the problem most likely stems from a faulty internal scaler chip in the BD-P1000. Samsung is reportedly working to fix the problem on future shipments of the unit, and also plans to issue a firmware upgrade to correct the problem on current players.
When assessing the transfer of any Blu-ray or HD DVD disc title, we here at High-Def Digest always compare the HDMI versus component output on every disc to detect any depreciable differences in image quality, as well as to confirm whether or not the Image Constraint Token (ICT) has been activated on a particular disc title or not (which would down-convert the component output's resolution to standard DVD quality).
If and when Samsung makes an official announcement of a firmware upgrade that corrects the problem with the BD-P1000's HDMI output, all of our Blu-ray reviews here at High-Def Digest will be revisited to reassess picture quality. In light of the continuing problems with the Samsung, and given the fact that it is currently the only Blu-ray player available on the consumer market, some readers may wish to reserve judgment on this or any Blu-ray title until picture quality can be reassessed.)
Unlike the video transfer, both the included uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are perfect respectable efforts. What's lacking is the film's sound design, which as is typical with mid-budget comedies is unimaginative and front-heavy.
Technically, there is nothing wrong here. Dynamic range is very good, with a pleasing spaciousness across the entire frequency range; and the film certainly never sounds cheap with tinny high end or obvious ADR (though low end feels a bit flat for a major studio production). Directionality and imaging between channels is also fairly seamless, but there just isn't much surround action to report. Aside from the occasional crowd noise or effect bleed from front to back, this mix isn't enveloping. I really enjoy atmosphere, even on comedies, so it is a shame the genre continues to get the short shrift when it comes to sound design these days.
'The Benchwarmers' comes with a fairly extensive package of extras (at least if you are into counting bullet points). Perhaps that's because the film's runtime is a scant 85 minutes, leaving plenty of room for supplements. Whatever the case this at least compares nicely with the standard DVD release.
First up are not one but two audio commentaries, including a filmmaker track with director Dennis Dugan and a second track with actors David Spade and Jon Heder. Unfortunately, it's a bit of overkill. These two tracks could have easily been edited down into one, as Spade and Heder are humorous but not laugh out loud funny (plus they leave a bit too much dead space at times), while Dugan struggles at times to fill his time with interesting production factoids (indeed, it must have been hard to make the filming of a movie like 'The Benchwarmers' exciting). I don't know if even diehard fans of the movie will find the time to sit through both tracks, so if you have to pick I'd go with the Spade and Heder track -- at least I chuckled.
Next up are four short featurettes. All are assembled from the same batch of cast and crew interviews offering their perspective -- sometimes funny, sometimes straight -- on the film's themes or characters. "Nerds vs. Bullies" (5:44) tells us which cast were really bullies in high school, and which were the nerds. (Anyone wanna guess which Heder was?) "Mr. October" (8:10) is an affectionate ode to cameo guest star Reggie Jackson. "Play Ball" (6:02) offers reminiscences on our nation's shared love of baseball. And finally "Who's on Deck?" (2:38) is a montage of the character of "Howie" and his best scenes. I didn't think he was all that funny in the first place, but if you are a Howie fan, enjoy.
Also included is a collection of four Deleted Scenes. Unfortunately they are super-short, running only a little over two minutes in total. Nothing here is memorable, though they do attempt to expand on the character of Gus' wife a bit, who was pretty underutilized in the final cut. Still, these are entirely skippable.
Rounding out the lineup is a series of previews, though no actual theatrical trailer for 'The Benchwarmers.'
'The Benchwarmers' is another goofy, largely forgettable comedy from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions. Though I laughed more than a few times, this is still far from the best example of this type of outrageous satire. As for this Blu-ray release, the transfer is too spotty for its own good and the soundtrack only decent. At least we get some extras this time, but that still might not be enough to inspire even the most diehard fans of the film to give this more than a rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.