27 June 2012

Being Adam Sandler - A guide to the most Love/Hate figure in Hollywood

"That's My Boy" has crashed financially

It’s pretty common knowledge that Adam Sandler’s recent fare (“Grown-Ups and “Jack and Jill”) has been very poor, the former SNL goofball having fallen into a qualitative rut of epic proportions. Yet despite the dip in form the man’s movies have found no problem registering massive kerchings at the box-office. Until now. With the release of his most recent vehicle “That’s My Boy” (which received slightly improved but still largely lukewarm critical notices), Sandler has encountered a problem he hasn’t known since the mid 90s – financial failure. The film has registered just $27 million in domestic gross since opening a fortnight ago, a figure far lower than any traditional Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company) project in recent memory. For Sandler it marks a major concern. Critics have scorned his work since he jumped on the scene with 1995’s bizarre-o “Billy Madison”, but rejection from the general public is something he simply isn’t familiar with. He’s been one of the most reliable box-office draws in Hollywood for nearly 15-years, hits like “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy” propelling him into the ranks of stardom usually reserved for the likes of Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie or Will Smith. The collapse of “That’s My Boy” could truly mark the beginning of the end for Adam Sandler “The Movie Star”, meaning that now is an incredibly appropriate time to survey his career.

Sandler chilling with the kids in "Billy Madison"
Sandler burst out of Saturday Night Live and into cinemas with a selection of moderate supporting roles in the early 90s, before taking leading man status in “Billy Madison”, the tale of a rich nincompoop sent back to school so that he might confidently assume his father’s business empire. Upon release the picture was met with universal derision and it tanked at the box-office, but time has been kind to “Billy Madison”. The film is poorly directed and assembled with the technical competency one might associate with amateur film students, but a propensity for inspired and surreal silliness has gifted the movie cult status. It’s a genuinely funny film and one worthy of remembrance, especially in today’s filmic climate. Sandler is in completely ridiculous form throughout, but his crazed turn alongside a host of cameos (Chris Farley and Steve Buscemi are particular highlights), sanity-bursting gags and hallucinogenic penguins elevate the picture above most of its contemporaries. The story is bobbins but the jokes are so regular, immature, infectious and silly that it all simply becomes impossible to resist. There’s an edgy blackness that just doesn’t inform Hollywood comedy much anymore – one of the repeat gags culminates in the death of a suburban family – yet somehow despite its tastelessness on paper the moment draws a big, broad giggle. Any piece of art that can do that is one worth acknowledging. With the advent of VHS and DVD “Billy Madison” has found a massive audience and is fondly accepted as one of Sandler’s most distinctive efforts, certainly it represents a good starting point for this article

Golf gets a hard time in "Happy Gilmore"
1996s “Bulletproof” (pairing him with a Wayans Brother) was badly received and also underperformed, but fortunes changed with “Happy Gilmore”. The story of a pro-hockey player forced into golf, “Happy Gilmore” is probably Sandler’s grandest calling-card. Perfecting his man/child routine within an inch of its bawdy life, the picture isn’t quite as absurd as “Billy Madison”, but it’s just as amusing. Reviews improved slightly (although many critics remained vaguely sceptical) but upon its release on VHS the film amassed a huge and deserved audience. “Happy Gilmore” is definitely more accessible than “Billy Madison” but a strong hint of the strange Sandler flavour still lingers, giving it enough spice to have withstood the years. In fact Empire Magazine recently included it in the lower ranks of their “50 Funniest Comedies of all Time”. The supporting performances once again supply a large chunk of appeal (look out for Ben Stiller in a fabulously vile little role), director Dennis Dugan keeping the soft story moving at a neat clip, indulging in Sandler’s weird creations rather than the lightweight narrative. It’s a tonne of fun even all these years later, a fond reminder of how inventive and zany Sandler could be. The actor stumbled more directly into the romantic comedy genre in the aftermath with “The Wedding Singer”. It’s a favourite of some, but whilst inherently serviceable, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the picture. It has far too many bland spots, although Sandler and starlet Drew Barrymore admittedly make for a cute onscreen pairing (at least they do on this occasion).

 Sandler in 2000's "Little Nicky". It's better than you've heard. 
The years that followed brought hits like “The Waterboy” and “Big Daddy”. The latter is a sweet, softly satisfying yarn with a respectable laugh quota, the former less impressive, albeit boasting a few choice moments of juvenile delight. Both movies comfortably cracked the $100 million mark, turning Sandler into the star he is today. 2000’s “Little Nicky” is regarded as a misfire, bringing in a paltry amount when compared to its immediate predecessors, swept under the rug as a blip. I have some love for “Little Nicky”, Sandler mixing religion and slight Shakespearean influence into his usual ballet of idiocy. He portrays Satan’s na├»ve and socially retarded son, forced to face New York in order to halt his dastardly siblings (including a smarmy Rhys Ifans) and save his father. The film is a bit messy and features one of the worst love interests in any of Sandler’s work, but otherwise remains a lovable, rambunctious and reasonably jocose effort. Sandler’s performance in this one is also particularly divisive, his wacky voice and decrepit physical stature irritating some, but for me it marks the comic at his ludicrous best, selling the jokes with an extra layer of berserk appeal.

"Anger Management" is one to avoid.
Sandler also turned his hand to producing more during this period. He provided brief but ill-fated leading man careers for buddies David Spade (a performer worthy of the attempt) and Rob Schneider (not so much). In fact 2002’s Schneider starring “The Hot Chick” is amongst one of the crappiest products to boast the Sandler stamp; it’s a literal affront to the notion of good humour. More disappointing on a thespian level is 2003’s “Anger Management”, a largely dreadful farce that placed Sandler alongside the legendary Jack Nicholson. It should have been a match made in heaven and even has a nice premise to boot, but the screenplay is atrocious and it would appear there was little synergy between Nicholson and Sandler in practise. It was however a modest hit, returning some level of stability to the Sandler brand following “Little Nicky”.

A film as delightful and weird as its poster
It was at this point that Sandler began to test himself dramatically, taking the main role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s subtle yet magnificently touching “Punch-Drunk Love”, a subversive love story that had Sandler turning heads as an eccentric and lonely salesman. The film established Sandler as a serious presence, something he confirmed in 2005’s “Spanglish” and 2007’s “Reign Over Me”. Neither of those films is on a par with “Punch-Drunk Love”, but each is a respectable work in its own right, Sandler at the forefront of their most notable attributes. Sadly whilst the serious side brought new hope, things on the comedic ranch were staring to sour; “50 First Dates” (his second and weaker collaboration with Barrymore), “Click” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” all thoroughly mediocre offerings. Yet despite the lack of verve or skill evident in these flicks, they each collected wealthily at the box-office, underlining Sandler’s dominance of the fratboy market. Things looked a little brighter with 2008’s uneven yet occasionally inspired “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”, but it’s a minor oasis in a sea of unmemorable tripe.

Giving the best performance of his career in "Funny People"
It’s at this juncture we arrive at 2009’s “Funny People”, probably the best film on Sandler’s CV. A brave and utterly mesmerizing tale, “Funny People” inexplicably sank financially, a miss after director Judd Apatow’s gargantuan hit with 2007’s “Knocked-Up”. A tremendous movie in all regards, “Funny People” is the epic story of a comedian (Sandler) who after being diagnosed with cancer, decides to try and amend his hollow yet luxurious existence. It’s a harsh, organic and unexpectedly sympathetic turn from Sandler in a picture I now regard as a masterpiece; the sort of work that gets the like of George Clooney, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling academy recognition. Alas Sandler is not amongst their esteemed ranks and never will be, meaning his contribution and the film as a whole were criminally overlooked. One has to simply watch the movie to see how open and vulnerable his performance is, its failure surely unsettling the performer’s artistic confidence. That’s something which might explain the following three years…

Flirting ill-advisedly with his feminine side in "Jack and Jill"
“Grown Ups” was unleashed during summer 2010 and accumulated accurately shambolic reviews but somehow powered its way to the top of Sandler’s profit list. Last year’s “Jack and Jill” featured a trailer so unforgivably awful it became the stuff of internet legend; I admittedly only trundled through 40 minutes of the cross-dressing endeavour before concluding life is too short. “Just Go With It” was more bearable, but hardly the sort of frothy confection to set ambition alight and much of the picture’s pros derived from Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman. Sandler legitimately looks comatose for large portions of the runtime. Now we have “That’s My Boy” a certified box-office bomb after only a few weeks in release. Critics seem to agree it’s a marginal step-up, and it does boast the intriguing cocktail of Andy Samberg and a hard R-rating, but apparently it doesn’t completely break the dud mould Sandler has slowly formed around his once crazed self. The movie’s failure at the box-office signifies audience recognition of Sandler’s newfound coasting, meaning that if he wants to hold onto his cred as a Hollywood all-star he better up his game. On the basis of this, I have to conclude I kinda hope he does. One more “Happy Gilmore” or “Funny People” would be appreciated, because it’s obvious this much maligned comedian has it in the tank. Somewhere.

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2012


Michael Perry said...

Really interesting and well-written, bloody good show Dan!

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