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‘Spaceman’ launches Adam Sandler into a heavy-handed sci-fi drama

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Adam Sandler’s deal with Netflix means pretty much doing whatever he wants, which, in the case of “Spaceman,” means traveling to the furthest reaches of space as the near-solitary star of a pretentious, message-heavy drama. Violating “Seinfeld’s” “No hugging, no learning” rule, the concept holds some interest for a time but runs out fuel before reaching home.

Adapted from Jaroslav Kalfař’s novel titled “Spaceman of Bohemia” by director Johan Renck (an Emmy winner for “Chernobyl”) and writer Colby Day, the film features Sandler as a Czech astronaut named Jakub, having spent more than six months journeying to take samples of a mysterious space cloud. Yet while mission control tries to keep him focused on matters at hand – and underwrites the venture by having Jakub, a celebrity back home, read ads for things like anti-nausea medication – all is not well back on Earth.

Indeed, Jakub has noticed that his wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan, between this and “Maestro,” the VIP of under-appreciated wives in Netflix movies), has stopped sending messages, and he’s fretting about the strained nature of their relationship. He’s right to worry, since Lenka wants to end things, a revelation that the leader of the space agency (Isabella Rossellini) is reluctant to share, lest it distract Jakub from the mission.

Before Jakub can reach his objective, though, he receives an unexpected visitor in the form of a wise alien with a soothing voice (provided by Paul Dano, who excels at this sort of creepiness) that belies its unsettling appearance.

After getting over his initial shock, Jakub begins to build a relationship with the alien, whom he names Hanuš. The extreterrstrial takes an inordinate interest in details of the life of this “skinny human,” and especially his relationship with his mate. The why of that stays a bit murky, but the thrust involves the not-terribly-subtle lesson that we sometimes have to go far away to realize what’s really important and that there’s no place like home, Auntie Em.

After playing a supporting role in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” – a showcase for his daughters – and scratching his sports itch with “Hustle,” Sandler seems to relish this dramatic turn as the pained astronaut, driven professionally to the point of jeopardizing his marriage. The actor has exhibited plenty of range, but one suspects Netflix would much prefer his next endeavor tilt closer to “Murder Mystery” territory.

While there’s a fair amount of “Gravity” in the outer-space trappings and the way Sandler has to hold the screen, “Spaceman” feels a little too weighty in its reliance on emotional cliches. Whether that’s ultimately due to the underlying material or the heavy hand brought to translating it, the net effect is a failure to launch.

“Spaceman” premieres February 23 in select theaters and March 1 on Netflix. It’s rated R.

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