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Adam Sandler: What the Hell Happened?

With Adam Sandler’s latest film, The Cobbler, opening in select theaters today, the CoS film staff sat down to try and pinpoint exactly when and why Sandler stopped making us laugh. Did he change, or did we?

Patrick Gill (PG): You know when that guy you aren’t sure got an invite shows up to the bar for someone’s birthday drinks, or worse, you run into him at the old bar because you were feeling nostalgic? He rambles out a few ill-tweaked jokes with twice the candor, misremembers stories, makes your female friends feel uncomfortable. You try to remember those good times: nudie magazine day, that “mista mista” lady, Opera Man, even the first time “You Can Do It” was croaked out in a Cajun accent. You stop paying attention to him to recall why you spent a solid amount of time with this dude, so much time that it now makes you wince.

Your memories become fraught with problems in retrospect, yet still they make you chuckle. You don’t want to mock the guy because a lot of people still like him, and you don’t want to be pretentious. This gut drop is what I get every time I see Adam Sandler is releasing something into the world, ever since Click.  I don’t know how y’all feel, but I feel something akin to remorse meets regret meets confused aggression, but not quite that serious, with and about Sandler.

Dominick Mayer (DM): I think that’s as good a place as any to start, because the majority of us involved in this discussion grew up on Sandler’s stuff. Whether or not you grew up in an SNL house (which I did), especially if you were a young man at the time, Sandler movies were gospel. I distinctly recall my babysitter taking me to The Waterboy and me laughing harder than I ever had at anything in a theater to that point. That was the beauty of Sandler’s early stuff: There was an unabashed immaturity to his movies that was kind of charming in how well it understood and reflected the transgressive spirit of a kid toying with the furthermost reaches of what he could get away with in good(ish) taste.

So that brings up the question: When did it go wrong? As I’ve gotten older, and my sense of humor has become no less lowbrow but perhaps a little less interested in outright cruelty, I’ve gone back and revisited a lot of Sandler’s movies. The answer to that question, at least for me, is earlier than it used to be. For instance, my recollection of Little Nicky as being somewhat clever was horribly misguided; it’s every bit as excruciating as a lot of his other latter-day films. I would say The Waterboy was probably the divide, if we can pick such a thing, as it was the last time when the early sincerity trumped the later affinity for laughing at human freakshows. But this is relative. What do the rest of you make of this? Is it one of those cases like when you go see NoFX as an adult and realize how sad it is that middle-aged dudes are still playing those songs about their shitty dads that you grew up identifying with? That’s how I feel watching most of his movies now, but that definitely wasn’t always the case.

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Dan Caffrey (DC): I’m glad you brought up the age thing, Dom, because that always seems to be the main thing that comes up when discussing Sandler films with anyone over 25. And while Little Nicky certainly doesn’t hold up (although I don’t outright hate it), Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and even The Waterboy sure do. And that’s to say nothing of The Wedding Singer and Punch Drunk Love. However, in keeping the discussion centered on Sandler’s devolution, I think it’s best to stick with the gloriously stupid films of yesteryear versus the painfully stupid (and mean) films of today.

For me, it comes down to two traits: absurdity and kindness. As dumb as those early flicks are, there’s a certain weirdness about them that separates them from something like Problem Child. It almost borders on surrealism. You have all the hallucinations in Billy Madison, and hell, one of the last things we see in Happy Gilmore is Abe Lincoln, a dead alligator, and the ghost of Happy’s mentor waving goodbye to us from Heaven. Later movies like the Grown Ups series feel like they’re trying harder to take place in the real world, not the perverted yet somehow sweet place that exists in Sandler’s earlier work.

And that brings me to that second trait: kindness. So many of the early Sandler flicks are about misfits, or at least guys who are on the bottom of the social totem pole. For all his money and arrogance, Billy Madison is considered by most people around him to be a loser. But these days, whenever Sandler’s playing a more normal everyman, he’s at the top of the food chain: gorgeous wife, nice house, kids, etc. That would be fine if not for the fact that all of the humor springs from him and his goons taking down anyone who’s different from them. And at the end, they still try to shoehorn in some message about being nice to people, which feels really weird and a little gross. The early years had less calculation and less power, and thus were more innocent.

What about the rest of you? Do you think the decline in quality has anything to do with Sandler’s ascent to more money and power? I don’t think he’s consciously cruel — he’s always seemed like a really nice dude — but I do think his vision has gotten clouded a bit by his status.

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Randall Colburn (RC): If he wasn’t self-aware, he wouldn’t have made Funny People, which found him both lampooning his career arc while acknowledging an existential ache. Still, money talks. And his movies make a lot of it. And making them with Happy Madison, his production company, means hanging out with all of his best buddies, second-stringers like Allen Covert, Jonathan Loughran, and Peter Dante. In real life, Sandler’s always portrayed himself as a “sports and sweatpants” kind of guy, someone who’s more concerned with swigging a beer than winning awards. Why jeopardize that?

It’s not like he hasn’t taken chances in his career. Even before Punch Drunk Love, his first foray into drama, Sandler tried his hand at Lethal Weapon-esque action in Bulletproof. That didn’t work, but Big Daddy did. Punch Drunk Love got him taken seriously among cinephiles, but his subsequent attempts at drama — Spanglish and Reign Over Me — were box office duds. You know what wasn’t? Click. Even on SNL, Sandler stuck with what worked: Opera Man, Cajun Man, The Herlihy Boy, and Canteen Boy came back time after time. What the critics said didn’t matter — if the audiences come out, that means they want more.

So are we the problem for even asking what the hell happened? What is it we want from him, exactly?

emilio Adam Sandler: What the Hell Happened?DC: That’s a fair argument — that maybe the Sandman is doing the same thing he always has and we’ve just outgrown him. But what’s still missing for me is that weirdness I mentioned. Like you said, the dude’s successful, and his movies do really well, so he’s under no obligation to provide us with the absurdities of yore. But if you’re asking what I want from a modern-day Sandler film, that’s it in a nutshell. I just want that same flippant surrealism — much different than flippant cruelty — that we got from everything from Billy Madison through The Wedding Singer and, to an extent, Big Daddy. That last one definitely had a more family-conscious message, but let’s not forget about Crazy Eyes. You could say the same thing for John Turturro’s “sneaky” butler in Mr. Deeds. That’s another film that’s mediocre to me, but it had just enough hints of young, strange Sandler to be an enjoyable watch.

Since we’re on the topic of weirdness, did anyone see You Don’t Mess with the Zohan? I actually like that one quite a bit. It’s completely insane and gets Sandler back in the role of the innocent yet profane, dimwitted yet talented idiot. He also worked on it with Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel, so it’s got just the right inflection of morality, plus some truly sublime sight gags, not to mention the Zohan having sex with a bunch of old ladies to keep his salon open.

You may hate on this film, and I’d completely understand. But do you think it’s at all comparable to the early-career flicks that put him on the map? And if so, maybe nothing the hell has happened to him. After all, this only came out in 2008. Maybe he still has some of that They’re All Gonna Laugh at You weirdness in him.

PG: I miss the kooky Sandler elements, as it seems with age he’s replaced them with half-baked family values (Click) and/or messages about the importance of settling down (Just Go with It). He’s sanded down his edges, and in the process we lost human-sized penguins giving handjobs in dream sequences. Why did he soften, though?

This may be a man getting tired and shrewd, tempered by dramatic passion projects going belly up, experiencing the business of filmmaking from too many angles. Maybe what we’re seeing is the head of a production company acting conscious of demographics, costs, past returns, and the trends that brought them. Sandler seems like he just wants to put something out that will make some money and stay within a comedy brand. If he gets to perform, great. If he gets a vacation, better.

And about Sandler’s performances, I don’t expect an Airheads-level mania or for him to step into Happy Gilmore’s batting cage again, but he has gone from a man who fully commits to a guy who just shows up. He’s worked curmudgeonly characters (who aren’t too out of reach for a man nearing 50) into scripts and pretends to make them grow. I guess badly putting on a dress and scream-crying for Jack and Jill was a commitment, but so very misdirected (and outright terrible). With the gulfs between his dramatic roles widening (two years between Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, three years after until Reign Over Me, two until Funny People, and then five before Men, Women and Children), is he squirreling away his abilities for these outings? Are we going to see many more soon? Do we want to?

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DM: Well, if you can place any stock in the reviews of The Cobbler out of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’m not sure we want whatever’s on its way. But I think what’s so curious about his last few movies, to Dan’s point, is that even the weirdness has given way to something more apathetic: meanness. I’ve seen Jack and Jill more times than any self-respecting human being should, but I also find a perverse fascination in not only how incompetently so much of it is made, from pacing and photographic perspectives alone, but how angry it is. There’s something really bizarre about watching Sandler hurl dusty Jew jokes and all sorts of gross-out gags at himself, all while the arc for his own character concerns him being constantly furious with his typically gorgeous wife (Katie Holmes in this iteration) and precocious kids. He comes off like an upper-middle-class prick who can’t be bothered with all the morons and weirdoes around him.

That’s to say nothing of That’s My Boy, which is as unpleasant a piece of work as he’s ever done, a movie that finds statutory rape hilarious and totally awesome and doesn’t have many jokes in its excruciating two hours that go further than either “look at all these freaks, amirite?” or “everyone’s so mean to the hilarious party guy!” I think there’s absolutely a certain obliviousness to his latter-day vehicles that makes them harder to swallow in their ugliness. Even the Grown Ups films foreground all of his worst modern habits: mockery of eccentricity, thinly veiled homophobia, gorgeous star actresses in nothing roles as appealing markers of the leads’ collective virility in middle age, cameos from outmoded musicians most of the rest of the world no longer cares about.

One thing I wanted to touch on was something to which Patrick alluded: the sentimentality of third acts in Sandler movies. Why does this exist? I ask because the sweetness that leads to them has become so unconvincing that in a film like Jack and Jill, it’s a massive tonal shift. Click is still very much the most egregious example, though, with a finale that turns a flaccid high-concept comedy into a craven attempt at a Jimmy Stewart vehicle. Who is this for?

RC: During the course of this discussion, I decided to watch Sandler’s 2014 flop/African vacation Blended, wondering if perhaps we were being too hard on his latter-day comedies.

Nope.

It seemed like people were actually anticipating Blended, believe it or not. Who didn’t want to see Sandler and Drew Barrymore reunite after the massive success of The Wedding Singer? Well, most of the paying public, I guess. And for good reason, as the movie is fucking atrocious — a culturally insensitive, fat-shaming morass of bouncing titties bundled as a family comedy. It aims for the same kind of will they/won’t they energy of The Wedding Singer, but without the stakes, humor, or sentimental punch.

Because if we’re talking about sentimentality, Dom, The Wedding Singer had it in spades. It worked, too, that gooey shit, because of the tightrope mix of pervasive sweetness and gentle raunch that Sandler and Barrymore were able to walk. The Wedding Singer could be considered Sandler’s most enduring film, what with it being made into a Broadway musical and all. And it seems to be the film that edged Sandler towards such blatant turns of sentimentality; just look at the maudlin third act of Big Daddy, the flick he was probably prepping for when audiences responded so rapturously to “I Wanna Grow Old with You”.

It seems that almost every film since then has become more and more desperate in its attempts to cull a similar response. And this uptick in sentimentality clashes uncomfortably with the evolution of Sandler’s humor, which, as we’ve already covered, has backslid from bizarre to mean-spirited. It’s an uncanny amalgam, the kind that could only coalesce after years of stalwart, unchallenged experimentation. Happy Madison seems to have accomplished that great feat of creating something that feels wholly, unmistakably their own. I can spot a Happy Madison film every bit as quickly as one by Wes Anderson. Unlike with Anderson, however, that’s not a good thing.

What do you think, Dan? Why the aggressive sentimentality?

DC: I recently watched Blended as well, and to be honest, I’m not sure. I’m hesitant to say that Sandler’s lost touch with his kindness because, as we’ve said, I’ve heard nothing but nice things about the guy. And once again, Funny People proves that he has self-awareness, especially in its depiction of how awful Sandler’s character can be.

Maybe he’s just unable to shake his more old-school comedic sensibilities? For example, in Blended, Sandler’s character works with Shaq, who has no bones about making fun of fat women and how he knows one in particular who would eat up Sandler’s dick because she’s so hungry. Because fat people love to eat, right, guys? See? Comedy!

Immediately after that, Sandler’s tomboyish daughter enters the sporting-goods store, and a couple of high school guys start making fun of her. Shaq immediately jumps to her defense, which I think is supposed to show us he’s a good dude. But what about the fat jokes he made just seconds before? Wasn’t he doing the exact same thing as the high school guys? Granted, it wasn’t to anyone’s face, but you get the idea.

Unless Sandler and co. are subversively commenting on the hypocrisy of human kindness, the whole thing just feels misguided and mean, coming from a set of comic ethics where you should be nice to tomboys and the mentally disabled, but are allowed to make fun of overweight folks. The whole thing just feels very outdated to me.

Look, I personally think there’s nothing sacred when it comes to comedy. It’s not that I have a problem with the fat jokes, but I do have a problem when we’re being told what we can and can’t make fun of from a production company that deals in cruelty and sentimentality with equal amounts of vigor.

Anyway, I’m getting off the rails a bit. What are your final thoughts on the Sandman, Dom? Is there anything we missed?

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DM: Dan, I think you get at an interesting possibility: what if it’s just that time and sensibilities have changed? It’s not like Sandler was the only offender of better tastes back in the day or is the only one now. That doesn’t excuse some of what he puts in his films by any stretch, but it’s important to understand that he came up in the shock era of comedy and seemed to peak around the time American comedy reached its zenith of offensive madness via Freddy Got Fingered and the like. There was a time and place for the comedy of tropes and stereotypes, and in a marketplace that’s becoming more critical of its pop culture by the day, I’m not sure the model can last that much longer in its current state.

And honestly, I think in the case of contradictions like Blended or the ones present throughout Jack and Jill (i.e. the horrible Mexican stereotype who gets to make every hoary, hideous joke you can think of because he’s Mexican and just joking, so they’re perfectly copacetic), it’s more just laziness than anything. He’s making films that sell, because Funny People didn’t sell. As far as the solution we’ve danced around throughout this discussion, I would say his best chance at salvation lies with the four-film Netflix deal he cut a few months ago.

Do I think it could absolutely allow him to rest on the expected laurels? Sure. But if there’s ever a lower-risk time to try something new, or even variations on what’s old, it’s now. We’re in the same period for TV that Hollywood hit in the early ‘90s, when hot names could still be handed vulgar amounts of money to do what they do best and turn a profit. It all comes down to him figuring out which comedian he wants to be: the one who gets his triumphant second act or the one who wrings the shammy until not even droplets remain.

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