Beloved on “Saturday Night Live” and loved a lot less since then, one need look no further than recent conversations about a box office weekend showdown (“Pacific Rim” vs. “Grown Ups 2”) to see just how far Adam Sandler's reputation has sunk with some audiences. Often perceived as a moronic blight on comedy and movies, this point is sometimes difficult to argue, especially in recent years as the quality of his comedies has become nearly negligible (though Armond White will fight you on that opinion to the death; that respected critic loves the man).
But, like him or not, Sandler's been a bankable one-man brand for many years now, doing absolutely anything he wants in comedy (like giving buddies Rob Schneider and David Spade careers) with ridiculously high budgets (far surpassing the average comedy), and with tons of superstar guests to boot (Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Buscemi and even cameos by Quentin Tarantino and Johnny Depp to name a few). His status is something most comedians can only dream of achieving. His charming (?) mixture of schlubby everyman and schticky character actor is often critic-proof and his movies are almost always box office gold. And his occasional attempts at experimentation are almost always counterbalanced by the kind of feature that practically guarantees mainstream acceptance. It can be hard to love Sandler in recent years, but it’s impossible to deny he is a unique force; the Tom Cruise or Will Smith of comedy worldwide.
This week his first sequel, Sony's "Grown Ups 2," opens nationwide, and we thought we'd... uh, mark the occasion by looking back at the bumpy, varied and sometimes unpredictable career of one of the most successful talents in contemporary comedy, Adam Sandler (wow, does it feel weird saying that). Get ready to remember all the silly voices and strained premises that have made him the star he is today. Shabadoo!
“That’s My Boy” (2012)
“Jack And Jill” was an underperformer as far as Sandler’s usual output, but “That’s My Boy” had to be the first time the comedian suffered an outright rejection from his core since the fairly adventurous “Little Nicky.” Maybe it was the R-rating; Sandler’s always been crude and disgusting, but he’s never found a way to exclude the teenage fanbase that made him a millionaire. The assumption was that Sandler’s core audience had grown with him, but perhaps they had finally grown tired, and seeing the vaguely lovable miscreant as a drunken deadbeat dad was a sobering reminder of the demographic’s mortality. Or maybe they finally caught on to the fact that Sandler stars in terrible, shapeless films with no shelf life: “That’s My Boy” adds to this typically slipshod construction (and typically improbable runtime of 116 minutes) by centering on a story that celebrates statutory rape, finding a young, pre-teen Sandler impregnating his teacher and enjoying a consequence-less fifteen minutes of fame well into his forties. His pursuit of a distant son played by Andy Samberg is more of a passing-of-the-torch from one “SNL” cast member to another, but it doesn’t work because Samberg is stuck playing the straight man to Sandler’s beer-addled antics, hamstrung by a straightforward narrative with room for only one of these comics to cut loose. Again, like “Jack And Jill,” there’s the sense Sandler is actually acting this time around (while also revealing his limited skill in that venue), but it’s buried under a nearly two-hour cocktail of jokes about sex, incest and prostitutes. Sandler pictures usually encourage audiences to cheer even when his characters are being selfish, obnoxious boors, but during the grotesque, Bud Light-sponsored climax of “That’s My Boy,” even his most diehard fans rejected the movie outright. [D-]
“Jack And Jill” (2011)
Life imitates art: as George Simmons in “Funny People,” it seemed as if Adam Sandler was able to mock his sometimes (ahem, frequent) craven commercial pursuits in making pictures that appeal strictly to the lowest common denominator, buoyed by his silly faces and “funny” voices. Of course, “Funny People” was a noted flop, and somewhere in that thought process, Sandler must have felt that the film’s rejection somehow validated Simmons and his choices. Hence, “Jack And Jill,” which casts Sandler as both a thinly-veiled version of himself (here, a layabout Hollywood ad man) and his obnoxious, oversharing sister. The plot is humiliating for all involved, as Sandler’s Jack Sadelstein eventually finds a way to justify his sister’s presence by foisting her on a horny Al Pacino (Al Pacino) (Al Pacino!) in an attempt to convince the superstar to sign on for a Dunkin Donuts campaign that conveniently keeps Sandler’s penchant for product branding in all of his films alive and well. The surprise, if one could consider such a thing, comes from the fact that for the first time in years, Sandler is giving a real performance as Jill. It’s odd that the typical Sandler cruelty is present in this picture, considering Sandler himself creates a persona in Jill not only with a certain sadness to her, but also a definitive ethnic identity, which Sandler often prefers to downplay. Sandler hit-maker Dennis Dugan (“Big Daddy,” “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan”) proves that as a director, his sycophancy cannot be trumped by his ineptitude, consistently cutting away from Jill for cheap reaction shots or slapstick garbage, giving the feeling that, for the first time Sandler and his collaborators may not be on the same page. [D]
In another excuse for Adam Sandler to get a paid vacation with a few A-listers in tow, “Just Go With It” is actually a very loose remake of the 1969 film “Cactus Flower,” mostly remembered as the film that gave Goldie Hawn her Oscar. Well, remake might not be right, how about vague interpretation? Sandler plays an L.A. plastic surgeon who lies to women about being in an unhappy marriage in order to get them into bed without all of that commitment nonsense. Because you know, every woman in her right mind is dying to be in a committed relationship with Adam Sandler, M.D. Really, as the title says, you just have to go with it, as Sandler attempts to woo Brooklyn Decker by using Jennifer Aniston, his assistant, and her kids as props (with Aniston acting as Sandler’s fictional unhappy wife) on a “family” getaway to Hawaii (adding another stop on the crazy train, Aniston is meant to have cheated on Sandler with Happy Madison cohort Nick Swardson, whose character is also in on Sandler’s ruse and joins in on the “family” trip last minute). With all plausibility and rationale out the window, it’s still a ridiculously convoluted and unfunny movie with overtly sexist overtones, particularly how Sandler sees Aniston in a whole new light once he sees her in a bikini. How they got Nicole Kidman onboard to play Aniston’s rival and actually do the awkward hula-off, we hope never to find out. Through Happy Madison magic and a movie-going public that’s given up, “Just Go With It” made over $214 million worldwide, which means we may see a “Just Go With It Again” in theaters Summer 2015. Godard, help us, help us all. [D+]
“Grown Ups” (2010)
If you’ve got the money, might as well flaunt it, and “Grown Ups” is the ultimate celebration of the empire built by Happy Madison. The threadbare plot, involving the reunion of a former high school basketball team upon the passing of their coach, is a flimsy excuse to pair Sandler with fellow superstars Chris Rock and Kevin James, as well as professional barnacles David Spade and, again, Rob Schneider (who apparently made some enemies after the film’s release, getting booted for the sequel). The five actors bounce against each other like slow-moving props, directionless and vacant, as they seem to count their dollars before the audience. While their characters take long walks in the woods, go swimming at a local water park and generally act the way people who have never worked a single day of menial labor would, the audience is forced to endure the sort of schtick that feels rejected from these actors’ other works, including Spade’s feeble, boyish horndog act, and James’ proclivity for self-harming slapstick (Sandler and Rock, in contrast, just seem exhausted). “Grown Ups” is a film of little conflict and less substance, climaxing in a patronizing basketball game where Sandler’s notably upper class crew face off against former classmates who have become local townies (played by lesser “SNL” vets, appropriately), a class distinction that Sandler condescends towards by allowing his crew the loss, claiming that the other side “needed” the victory. How magnanimous of you, Sandler the superstar. [F]