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summer movie preview 2014

Why Adam Sandler Might Be the Most Important Comedian of His Generation

(This essay originally ran in our Summer Movie Preview on April 30, 2014.)

Two years ago, I sat with a roomful of critics as we laughed our asses off through a screening of the new Adam Sandler comedy That’s My Boy. The film seemed to be a return to the raunchier, edgier Sandler of yore, a welcome change of pace from the bland, affluent suburbanites he’d played in some of his more recent films. The movie was far from perfect — that’s an understatement — but it was funny, crude, surreal.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the reviews for That’s My Boy turned out to be overwhelmingly dismissive. “Puerile, mean-spirited, and charmless,” declared Claudia Puig at USA Today. “An especially toxic blend of the condescension, idiocy and sentimentality that characterizes almost all of Sandler’s recent work,” wrote my pal Andrew O’Hehir at Salon. Audiences didn’t seem to dig it much, either — it was a rare box office flop for the generally reliable actor. It was nominated for eight Razzies and won two, though that was nothing new; over his career, Sandler himself has been nominated for the dubious award 19 times and has won it 6 times.

I still think That’s My Boy is a hilarious movie. But I can understand why a Sandler laugh often catches in the throat. You don’t quite want these yuks to count, because you’re not sure he’s earned them. Half the time you think you’re laughing not because the joke is good, but because it’s bad. Let’s be clear: Adam Sandler has made some terrible films. Grown Ups 2 is so bad it almost can’t be called a film. Jack and Jill isn’t much better. Little Nicky, ugh. And he may very well be on his way out as a major box office star — Grown Ups 2 was a big hit, but it was also his first sequel, and reeked of desperation in a way that no Sandler film has before. We’ll see how Blended, his latest rom-com with Drew Barrymore, who was his co-star in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, does when it opens on May 23.

But Adam Sandler might also be the most important American comedian of his generation. And here’s why.

In his early films, Sandler tended to play expressionist variations on the stylized dimwit, a persona he perfected on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. In Billy Madison, he’s an overgrown boob who has to repeat elementary through high school in the space of months. In Happy Gilmore, he’s a rage-filled wannabe hockey goon whose powerful swing lands him on the pro golfing circuit. In The Waterboy, he’s a sheltered, mentally regressive weirdo whose bursts of blind rage turn him into a college football hero. But these films also make sure to redeem Sandler’s characters and to reaffirm their basic decency. In all of them, by the end, the buffoon becomes a real, upstanding man. In Hollywood parlance, they have “heart.”

That’s nothing new in American comedy, of course, but Sandler plays both the shtick and the heart at the same level of non-commitment. Panning The Wedding Singer in 1998, Roger Ebert said of Sandler that “even at his most sincere, he sounds like he’s doing stand-up, like he’s mocking a character in a movie he saw last night … [He] always keeps something in reserve — his talent. It’s like he’s afraid of committing; he holds back so he can use the ‘only kidding’ defense.”

Even in his later films, as Sandler has shed his exaggerated mannerisms and tackled more “normal” roles, he has continued to stand at a distance. He can’t quite bring himself to act, almost like Jim Morrison couldn’t quite bring himself to sing. His straight-man act is as much a joke as his screeching idiot act. Whether his character is being sensitive or cruel, victimized or boiling over with anger, falling in love or engaging in romantic duplicity, he remains above it all. He still can’t seem to be bothered to care.

This non-commitment might be annoying to some (okay, many ... fine, most) critics, but it could be the key to Sandler’s appeal. Maybe it’s what makes him more like the average American. The exaggerated mannerisms, the made-up words, the screeching accents and baroque idiocy of these early films… It’s not acting, it’s play-pretend. It’s what we do when we sing in the shower. And the tempestuous blasts of anger in these early films — they’re the cinematic equivalent of an ALL CAPS mock temper tantrum on Twitter. None of it’s real, and Sandler repeatedly reminds us of it through his disengaged presence.

This Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who had to move to a lily-white, gentile New Hampshire suburb when he was 5, straddles a number of worlds, not quite belonging to any of them. The dramatis personae of his inner world — the overgrown loon from Billy Madison, the mousy romantic of The Wedding Singer, the underachieving slacker of Big Daddy — are maddeningly, mesmerizingly scattered. Our own David Edelstein, reviewing You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (one of Sandler’s better later films), once put it quite eloquently: “Some performers become stars because we can read them instantly, others — like Sandler — because we never tire of trying to get a fix on them.”

And yet. And yet. And yet. There’s something here that does unite these characters. Something at the core of the Sandler persona that is very real, that makes it clear that, for all the aforementioned inconsistency, something comes to mind when we think Adam Sandler. Here’s what I think that is.

Watching Sandler’s films again recently, I was struck by the profound sense of self-loathing at the heart of all his work. It peeks through in small moments, in brief lines of dialogue. But it’s always there. In Billy Madison, we learn that Billy, back when he was a child, was something of a bully, an entitled jerk who lorded it over others, even though he couldn’t even spell rock during a spelling bee; his refusal to grow up is in some ways a refusal to overcome his shortcomings. Happy Gilmore’s short fuse dates back to his father’s death, which he himself caused — a kind of regressive, unreachable hurt. In his remake of The Longest Yard, Sandler plays a former NFL quarterback who got caught for throwing a game; he repeatedly endures beatings, as if he needs to have the shame knocked out of him. “Y’know, my mother doesn’t like you very much,” says a young boy in the animated Eight Crazy Nights. “I don’t like me very much either,” Sandler’s character replies, with his characteristic blend of distance and mopey disdain.  

This is different, I think, than the stereotypical “self-loathing” that is used to characterize some Jewish humor. (Though, to be fair, Sandler has done his share of jokes about being Jewish. As noted, Zohan is a high point, and “The Hannukah Song” remains a small masterpiece of funny faux-empowerment.) Sandler isn’t self-deprecating; there’s actually an angry edge to his jokes and his asides that speaks to the fuck-up, the malcontent, the disappointment, the guy who used to be a sweet kid and then somehow threw it all away. Haven’t we all been that guy at some point in our lives? This is probably another reason why Sandler so often connected with both antisocial dorks and the lunch-money shakedown brigade back in the day. After all, aren’t teenage boys simultaneously the most self-loathing yet cocksure of demographics?

When you least expect it, this self-loathing peers through. You hear it, like a quiet ghost, in those early comedy albums — which are full of mean-spirited, monotonous bits that drag on forever. Think of “The Beating of a High-School Janitor” and “The Beating of a High-School Spanish Teacher,” extended sound-effects fests where we hear the said subject get violently pummeled. (That’s it, that’s the whole gag!) On the surface, these seem to be just another variation on Sandler’s wallow in crude, cruel comedy — and they are — but listen to them again: Sandler himself plays the janitor, the bus driver, the Spanish teacher. Even as he indulges our teenage violent fantasies, he is, in a sense, enacting a violent fantasy upon himself. He’s the one being beaten to within an inch of his life. Even the very titles of these albums — They’re All Gonna Laugh at You, What the Hell Happened to Me? — seem to scratch away at an unspecified shame.

The Sandler persona’s simmering, nuclear self-hate has also informed the more serious-minded films that he’s done. It’s what fuels P.T. Anderson’s absurdist, aggressively brilliant Punch-Drunk Love — the paralyzing anxiety of a man for whom everything in the world feels like a transgression, an insult. It’s also there in Funny People (directed by Sandler’s old roommate, Judd Apatow), in which he plays lonely, successful, soulless comedian George Simmons, who selfishly lies about a terminal disease to try to find love. (Sandler even sings a song about his character: “Fuck George Simmons. He has a medium-sized penis. He fucked so many girls and yet no one remembers. When he's done fucking them, the girl just lays there and says, ‘I should have fucked Jean-Claude Van Damme instead of you.’”)

In more recent films, the loathing has moved into the shadows, but it’s still there. At the beginning of Just Go With It, we see Sandler’s character as a young man betrayed by his fiancée for his comically large nose. As a result, he gets a nose job and becomes a soulless plastic surgeon — a man who helps people bury their self-loathing under Botox and silicone — and refuses to have any committed relationships, instead giving all his romantic conquests a (fake) sob story about an uncaring, imaginary wife. In Jack and Jill, the shame is doubled, and reflected back, as Sandler plays both a put-upon advertising exec and the uncouth, embarrassing sister he tries to use to his own ends. And even though Andy Samberg plays Sandler’s son in That’s My Boy, you could easily imagine the film as another double Sandler role, with the actor playing both the deadbeat, weirdo dad and the affluent, straight-man son who’s trying to shed his corrosive past; the Sandler of Movies Past coming to haunt the Sandler of Movies Today. (Indeed, with his singing routines and music videos, Samberg in some way inherited Sandler’s mantle on SNL.)

As Sandler has become more successful and richer, so have his characters. But there’s something incomplete, almost unreal about their success. They, like him, continue to not care. And because they don’t care, in all of these films, you suspect that the Sandler characters, fueled by their self-loathing, could easily break character and nuke the proceedings, to bring the world crashing down upon itself. There’s something hilarious and even a little terrifying about that.

Maybe that’s the fundamental connection between the non-commitment and the self-loathing. Consider the wildly uneven Click, which is billed as a comedy but might be one of the strangest and most dramatic films in the Sandler oeuvre. Its plot is about a universal remote that Sandler’s character can use to speed up, pause, and mute his own life. The film’s emotional trajectory is hopelessly cliché. Sandler’s overworked architect starts regularly fast-forwarding through dinner with his parents, through arguments with his wife, etc. Eventually, though, the remote learns his behavior and starts to fast-forward for him. Before he knows it, he’s old and bedridden and his whole life has passed him by. By my reckoning, it’s the 8,973,405th film Hollywood has made about not forsaking your family life for the rat race. The ending is sort of touching, but since Sandler can’t be bothered to act, it feels a bit like a joke. A movie about the perils of alienation winds up becoming a case study in alienation.

Which actually kind of makes it strangely hilarious. None of it matters, Sandler secretly says to us. Even if I’m telling you to be cool and stay in school, or to stop picking on losers, or to follow your dreams, or to always put family first, you know, in your heart of hearts, that I don’t mean it. Because everything sucks and the world is stupid.

So if, like some of those aforementioned critics, you also believe that Adam Sandler doesn’t deserve those laughs and those hits, then cheer up; I suspect that he doesn’t think he deserves them either. Is he funny? Yes. Sometimes. Not always. Not so much in recent years. But even so, even still, his films are a world of aspiration and hurt. Taken together, they capture that most elusive and dangerous of things: the carefree nihilism of the modern American mind.

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty