Adam Sandler built his career on playing stylized oddballs. For years, his characters were dim bulbs and live wires who usually spoke in brittle, whiny tremolos — but they were made (mostly) likable thanks to the actor’s patented, noncommittal delivery, this sense that nothing he did was meant to be taken seriously, not even as comedy. That’s why we could so often enjoy Sandler at his most mean-spirited; it was all sketch-level shtick. There was more to it, of course: a deep self-loathing gnawed through his characters, and Sandler’s consciously not-good-enough performances reflected the not-good-enough individuals he often played, which in turn found purchase in an audience filled with all us not-good-enough people. In a 2014 defense of the actor’s work, I wrote that his films captured “the carefree nihilism of the modern American mind.” I still stand by that claim, but I’ll admit that I had no idea how much more nihilistic the American mind could get.
Neither did Sandler, it seems. In his amiable, extravagantly produced new Netflix comedy, Hubie Halloween, he brings back a variation on his classic persona, once again playing a not-very-bright guy who talks funny, but the actor (who wrote the film, along with longtime collaborator Tim Herlihy) also finds a core of insistent sweetness, maybe even urgency, in the material that actually feels new for him. Sandler’s character, Hubie Dubois, is a man-child busybody who spends his days looking for minor transgressions to report, ostensibly to keep his town of Salem, Massachusetts, safe. This makes him a snitch and a weirdo in the eyes of the population; one of the film’s ongoing gags is the rain of angrily hurled projectiles — eggs, TVs, crutches, flaming spears — that our hero regularly dodges as he bicycles down the street. But Hubie is also, we are reminded over and over again, a genuinely good, kind person, an innocent whose suspicions are matched only by his gullibility, which makes him an easy target for bullies and opportunists. In other words, despite the surface similarities, Hubie isn’t quite the wounded sociopath of Sandler’s past. (He may sound like Billy Madison, but he’s more kin to The Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher, right down to the overprotective mother.)
No matter, though. People can’t stand him anyway. They don’t even take Hubie seriously when townsfolk start vanishing on Halloween, right after news breaks that a dangerous mental patient has broken out of a nearby asylum. The only people who give Hubie the time of day are his secret longtime crush, Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen), a good-hearted and beautiful divorcée fond of adopting orphans; his soft-spoken, new next-door neighbor, Walter Lambert (Steve Buscemi), who gives off every indication that he might be a werewolf; and his mom (June Squibb), who keeps having to remind Hubie to fight back against the bullies that continue to torment him. And because this is a Sandler film, the writer-star is not above mining plenty of humor out of Hubie’s many humiliations: That the character scares easily means that Halloween becomes a minefield for him, and the sight of Hubie screaming in terror at the smallest things has its own special charm. (Sandler and Herlihy have never been big on cringe comedy, so the humiliations lack the Apatovian ornateness of a 40-Year-Old Virgin or Superbad. That makes them less witty, but somehow more pure.)
Sandler, Herlihy, and director Steven Brill are not exactly comedy perfectionists, and they’re not really storytellers either. (At one point, I tried to summarize the film’s crowded plot to myself, and felt my soul start to leave my body.) But unlike many of Sandler’s latter-day comedies, Hubie Halloween is rarely lazy. If anything, the film sometimes overdoes it with the gags: A fun bit about everybody on a local newscast winding up dressed as Harley Quinn gets stepped on when they start pointing out to each other that they’re all dressed as Harley Quinn. (Were the writers worried that we wouldn’t get it?) June Squibb’s many profane T-shirts (“Boner Donor,” “I Shaved My Balls for This?” “Muff’s Diving School,” etc.) would be a lot funnier if the characters didn’t stop to talk about it.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for a movie that understands the inherent hilarity of Ray Liotta nonchalantly wearing a giant rainbow-colored clown wig alongside a coat and tie, or the spectacle of Tim Meadows trying to arouse Maya Rudolph by gently licking the pudgy, rubbery fingers of a fake hand, or even the simple joys of a Kenan Thompson reaction shot. None of this is particularly original, but nobody said you had to be original to make people laugh. Sandler’s generosity as a producer has often resulted in vast stretches of nothingness in his films, as we were forced to watch him and his co-stars cash their checks while putting in minimum effort. (Grown Ups 2 is still probably the low point of his career in this regard.) But in Hubie Halloween, that willingness to let his supporting cast have the spotlight leads to a few lovely, hysterical moments. Even the obligatory Shaquille O’Neal cameo sort of works this time around.
And believe it or not, the movie has a message — or at least, as much a message as any movie in which Rob Schneider plays a serial urinator can have. If in the past Sandler’s characters had to be reminded that their broken lives had value, this time the situation is reversed. Hubie doesn’t need to be redeemed, but his many tormentors do, and Hubie Halloween somehow works its way toward a denouement that warns against the dangers of allowing yourself to be consumed by hate and stooping to, or escalating beyond, the level of others’ cruelty. That’s not a complex, or new, or even bold idea. But it feels right for the moment. And somehow, delivered via the bizarre antics of Adam Sandler, who was once one of our most wonderfully corrosive comic personas, it has a certain power.
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