Punch Drunk Love

And 5 Adam Sandler Films That Aren’t Happy Madison Productions 

Punch Drunk Love” (2002)
Brace yourself, dear reader, for a shocking statement: Paul Thomas Anderson is, like, a totally awesome filmmaker! Ok, all teasing aside, we do of course love us some PTA over at The Playlist (even though our EIC finds him to be a tad overrated -- blasphemy!), and it is with this undoubtedly odd and adorable romantic comedy that the beloved indie filmmaking darling gave Sandler a huge gift — his best role to date. Sandler must’ve been waiting for the chance to stretch, because his performance matches and elevates what was on the page. He brings to life Barry Egan, the sad, closed-off toilet plunger salesman who wants to connect, but just doesn’t know how to do it. It really is the perfect distillation of the Sandler mythos, turning off those who just wanted to see another dumb comedy vehicle and exciting arthouse snobs who couldn’t believe he was capable of such pathos. There’s so much to love about “Punch Drunk Love” -- Jon Brion’s magical score, an encapsulation of all rom coms to that point but also capturing the feeling of love in music; Robert Elswit’s typically lush framing and moving camera; the bizarre non-sequiturs; Jeremy Blake’s artwork, sort of used as chapter breaks; Barry’s eight sisters; the pudding -- that listing it all could take thousands of words. Sandler and Emily Watson are perfectly matched romantic leads, creating a useful shorthand for the audience just by the way they look and sound, even moreso if you’re familiar with their screen personae. This is when PTA took a step in another direction, mostly leaving behind his roots as a Tarantino-esque referential director, and making something uniquely his. In hindsight, this is when the gifted filmmaker really came into his own, found his voice and would hit even greater heights with his next film. If you haven’t watch “Punch Drunk Love” in a while, do yourself a favor and revisit, you’ll be glad you did. [A]

Reign Over Me
Reign Over Me” (2007)
A well-intentioned drama about 9/11 post traumatic syndrome and friendship, 2007’s “Reign Over Me,” is ultimately a maddeningly uneven effort that stumbles often over its own clumsiness while trying to tell the story of one man’s recovery with authenticity and dignity and instead dialing up phoniness. Don Cheadle plays a family man dentist who desperately needs release from his controlling wife (Jada Pinkett). And he finds it in Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), an ex-college roommate who lost his family in the 9/11 tragedy. Cheadle’s Alan Johnson hasn’t heard from Charlie in years, but in a chance meeting in New York, the two old friends are reunited. Suffering from brutal PTS, Sandler’s Charlie is deeply troubled, withdrawn and refuses to talk about his past life. Sandler puts in a mostly admirable performance, but neither filmmaker 

Mike Binder’s lame script and poor direction does him much help and eventually the bad, cloying and clumsy movie overshadows every performance. Much like the classic rock music the movie is desperate to shoehorn in at every turn -- you can just picture Binder writing the screenplay to half this music and pumping his fists with self-approval -- Sandler generally has two notes: the meek, mumbly half and the loud, angry, outraged half which borders on an outburst out of... well, an Adam Sandler movie. Despite the two notes, the goofy, Bob Dylan-inspired hair and the dialogue that makes him incessantly reference Springsteen, The Pretenders, Jackson Browne, et al (the movie is titled after a Who song that is covered poorly in the credits by Pearl Jam), Sandler feels like he’s sincerely in it to win it. So much so that you wish a more nuanced director would have taken the basic skeleton of this movie, rewritten it and given Sandler and all the characters a bit more honesty and dignity to work with. [C-]


Spanglish”  (2004)
Like “Reign Over Me,” it’s unfortunate and disappointing that when Adam Sandler finally puts down the silly character and voices for a minute and attempts honest sincerity, the movies often fail him. Such is the case with 2004’s “Spanglish,” another movie where Sandler delivers a thoughtful, restrained and subdued performance that is mostly all for naught in a sea of shrill female characters.  James L. Brooks is lauded the world over for his films; he practically invented the dramedy with movies that artfully tap into the dramatically funny moments of life and the hilariously painful ones as well. But with a knack for unpleasant characters and broad sitcomy affinities, both proclivities tend to unravel his films (arguably going back as far as “As Good As It Gets”). About a Hispanic woman, Paz Vega, (and her daughter) who becomes the housemaid for a wealthy Caucasian family -- led by the monster of a shallow matriarch played by Tea Leoni, who might just be the most horrible mother ever committed to screen -- “Spanglish” says some interesting things about class lines and divides, but it’s also trying to say a mouthful about mothers, marriages, identity, careers, family, daughters and mother relationships and children. And Brooks simply can’t sustain it all with a screenplay that is brutally honest in some moments and then hamfisted and dishonest in others, to the point where it inadvertently becomes an unfortunate misogynist melodrama (the grandma is an alcoholic, the mother is vile, selfish control freak, the maid is a proud, hot tempered Latina who doesn’t want the White Lady to parent her daughter). Off in the corner, left of these various hot messes is Adam Sandler as the successful, but unappreciated husband; a mensch who has to try to navigate his family chaos. It’s a decent performance, Sandler relaxed and at ease is at his most likable. And Tea Leoni’s character is so narcissistically wretched, you empathize with him and it’s understandable why an ill-conceived third act romance with the maid is necessary if only to give the man a shred of his dignity back. But “Spanglish” is far too muddled, broad and unpleasant and he’s completely overshadowed. Not to mention the movie is totally offensive and counterfeit in its exploitation of multicultural social commentary for its own cuddly and phony attempts at feel-goodery. [C-]

"Funny People"
Universal Pictures "Funny People"

Funny People” (2009)
Looking back at this team-up with friend and collaborator Judd Apatow (in full-on James L. Brooks wannabe mode with this one), a lot of should’ves and could’ves tend to come to mind. It could’ve been the pinnacle of a career built on financially successful yet mediocre in quality work that’s buried Sandler into a creative stasis. It should’ve been the movie about stand-up comedy, instead that’s only half the story. The first half of “Funny People” is so good that it makes the second half, when it pretty much ditches the behind the scenes look at stand up comedians for a domestic showdown between Eric Bana and Sandler’s George Simmons (playing a thinly veiled version of himself, complete with awful-looking comedies that aren’t that far off from reality) for the heart of Leslie Mann. Apatow deserves credit for taking Sandler out of his comfort zone, and he was rewarded with one of the "SNL" vet’s strongest performances to date. The problem with the film, in the end, is that Apatow tried and failed to play the genre mashup game. Tone is key when grafting together two disparate stories, and Apatow manages to mostly sustain the right pitch through the eventually grueling 153-minute runtime, but the thing he didn’t seem to take into account is that, once your movie switches gears, the next story has to either be better than what came before, or at least as compelling. For those who loved all the great stuff about the celebrity-laden, depressing world of stand-up comedy, the story shift near the midway mark is where the train falls off the rails. We applaud Apatow’s ambition, but if he’d split off these two ideas into separate movies, the truth would emerge: the movie about comedy is great on its own (it could’ve been a masterpiece) and the domestic, one-that-got-away lamentation couldn’t sustain an entire feature. It should’ve been so much better! [C+]


"Bulletproof" (1996)
The premise seemed surefire enough: Sandler would channel his filthier side (evident in his comedy albums, one of which prominently featured a talking goat who is viciously abused by his owner), partnering up with a genuine comedy legend (Damon Wayans) while nestled comfortably inside a buddy comedy template perfected by movies like "48 Hrs" and "Midnight Run." While it doesn't quite measure up to what it could have been, thanks largely to a slack script that should have given the actors more to do in half the time (every supposed "twist" is telegraphed from about a mile away), it's still an experiment that largely works, to the point that you wonder why Sandler has never returned to similar action-comedy territory. The minor success of "Bulletproof" mostly has to do with the lively direction of Ernest Dickerson, who would go on to direct some of the most memorable episodes of AMC's creatively unmoored "The Walking Dead," and the chemistry between Sandler (who plays a car thief connected to a deadly drug kingpin) and Wayans (who plays the undercover cop who busts Sandler and ends up being stuck with him). James Caan phones in his role as the villainous drug dealer, but still manages to have fun with what little he's given. Darker and stranger than most of Sandler's widely known fair, it's not the kind of movie that's primed for critical reappraisal, but if it was, most would discover it to be a better-than-average action movie that was overshadowed at the time due to the superiority of other movies in the marketplace. As a rental, it's worth it, if only to hear how Sandler identifies the porno he's watching as being from the seventies: "The guy's dick's got sideburns." Sandler chuckles to himself and we chuckle along with him. If only he had done more movies like this. [B]

- Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Diana Drumm