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[Article] – The Curious Case Of Adam Sandler

 

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Posted August 7, 2017 by

 
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Adam Sandler has had a welcome return to form recently with The Meyerowitz Stories, from director Noah Baumbach, but is this really a cause for celebration, a good Adam Sandler film, at long last. Or does it confirm our largest fear that Sandler is a good actor, but only when somebody comes along to take him out of his comfort zone, in the case that being his own studio – Happy Madison Productions.

Sandler started out like many American comics on SNL and then went on to star in the breakout films Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and the Waterboy, this success led to Sandler setting up Happy Madison Productions as CEO in 1999 (the name presumably a merging of both Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore) and this has been the home of most of his output in the 25-odd years since.

Sandler’s early career made it clear he was focused on comedic film, and that no different with Happy Madison’s early productions, but it was clear he had a wider potential, seen by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast him as the lead in Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. Sandler’s early characters had been variations on the man-child theme, characters that had social problems, struggled in day-to-day life and had little prospects, but these traits were played up to broad comedic effect, often showing a loser that finds success.

But Anderson realised these themes had a greater potential by turning them on their head, approaching from a more awkward, darkly comic angle. Punch-Drunk Love earned Sandler the best reviews of his career so far and even earned him a Golden Globe nomination; critics praised the new direction from Sandler, with Roger Ebert stating “Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power. He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?”

Well, if you’ve kept tabs on Sandler career since you’ll know the answer to that question. Punch-Drunk Love remains the greatest and the most disappointing moment of Sandler’s career. It gave us a glimpse of Sandler’s true potential, but instead of being a touchstone to better and more varying roles, Sandler regressed back to the comforts of Happy Madison.

Whilst promoting Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson and Sandler appeared on Charlie Rose together, and while not awkward, there’s a sense that Sandler feels out of place there, somewhat humbled to be on a high-brow programme, whereas he would be much more at home on talk shows like Letterman. He had shown he could venture out into more dramatic fare, but perhaps he didn’t enjoy it as much, the brand of comedy he had developed with Big Daddy, Little Nicky and the likes was still his main love.

It’s no rare thing for actors to start their own production company; Brad Pitt and George Clooney have had great success with Plan B and Smokehouse Pictures, but this is usually done to create opportunities outside of their usual remit, to take on new challenges. Mel Brooks famously produced The Elephant Man, a world away from his usual oeuvre; Sandler’s efforts with Happy Madison though have been the complete opposite, creating the same type of content over and over again. Perhaps only Charlie Chaplin has worked more rigorously from inside his own studio to make the films he wanted, but Chaplin looked to push himself as an artist as his career advanced, if anything Sandler has moved backwards.

Happy Madison is clearly a place where Sandler feels comfortable, if he’s not starring in the films the studio produced, they tend to star friends or SNL alums, notably Rob Schneider, David Spade and Kevin James. There’s nothing wrong working with people you like and get on with, the film industry is notorious for long-term collaborations, but with Sandler his collaborations are based on friendship rather than talent.

His continued efforts with Schneider, Spade, James et al. have grown increasingly tired over the years, how often can you star with the same people over and over with such little variation and keep it fresh? It takes a pair like Scorsese and De Niro to keep going so successfully for so long, Sandler can’t boast anything like their output and critics grow ever more exasperated with his and Happy Madison’s work.

Of the 40 films Happy Madison has produced, the first being Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, only two have ever been rated fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and only just, with Reign over me scoring 64% and Funny People 68%, that is a truly abysmal record, and growing ever worse. In their early years, Happy Madison films averaged around 20-30%, but now that has dropped into the teens, seeing Sandler become a Razzie favourite, with his films earning 22 nominations since 2012 alone, winning eight.

Sandler may not star in every Happy Madison production, but it continues to be the source of his work, since Punch-Drunk Love he has only starred in six films from different studios: The Meyerowitz Stories, Spanglish, Men, Women & Children, the Hotel Transylvania series and err, Pauly Shore Is Dead. A rather varied selection of films, certainly in quality, Sandler drew praise for Spanglish, but these endeavours outside Happy Madison hardly live up to the potential shown in Punch-Drunk Love.

Like Punch-Drunk Love, these films remain anomalous in Sandler’s filmography- well apart from Pauly Shore Is Dead-after any venture into something different, Sandler reverts back to type. Punch-Drunk Love was followed by Eight Crazy Nights; Spanglish was followed by The Longest Yard and the better-received Funny People was followed by Grown-Ups.

This may have been ok back in the days of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, films that remain cult favourites, but the continued decline in quality grows increasingly disconcerting. Not only does Sandler continue to make stinkers, they have even been considered to be offensive, with Native American members of the cast reportedly walking off set on The Ridiculous Six (though the casting of Kevin James as the president in Pixels was a move of prophetic genius.) You have to wonder how much lower Sandler can go with Happy Madison, from 2011-16 there combined effort saw seven films fail to register scores of over 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. Will it get to the point where critics give up on him and he reaches a Steven Segal level of cinematic awfulness, well no, the difference of course between Sandler and Segal, is that Sandler retains a huge fan base.

Whilst his work continues to receive critical mauling’s, Sandler has always had an ardent fan base on his side, which has made him and Happy Madison incredibly successful, The Simpsons even joked he was richer than Mr Burns.

And despite the copious Razzie nominations, he won the People’s Choice award for Favourite Comedic Movie Actor for five consecutive years from 2011-15, a pretty incredible statistic considering he was also nominated for worst actor Razzie four out of those five years, showing his fans and critics opinions couldn’t be further apart.

Perhaps this is the real reason Sandler continues to work within the familiar embrace of Happy Madison, it’s not just to work with his friends or have control over what he does in his capacity as producer, but because his work pleases his fan base. Actors can avoid reviews fairly easily, but fan opinion is harder to stay away from, when people come up to them in the street and tell them their films suck, that’s when it may start to hit home. Given Sandler’s popularity this probably doesn’t happen too often.

When you have an adoring fan base and you’re doing extremely well personally, where’s the desire to push yourself artistically, Sandler doesn’t need to move outside of his comfort zone, he’s never had to. Most of his more successful roles (critically) have come when directors have reached out to him; Anderson approached him for Punch-Drunk Love and Baumbach also for The Meyerowitz Stories, stating “I’ve always really liked Adam, there is a very touching quality about him even in his wilder performances.”

The Meyerowitz Stories may rare and welcome critical success for Sandler, but the past suggests that this will be just another occasional foray into the world outside Happy Madison. His next slated film is ‘The Week Of’ alongside Chris Rock, which may sound promising, but the film is another Happy Madison production, responsible for Sandler’s and Rock’s last collaboration, Grown-Ups.

Sandler’s three decades plus of work have left him in a very strange position, incredibly successful, yet a huge failure at the same time, he is one of the most financially successful comedic actors you could imagine, but has starred in some of the most critical hated films of this century. Again perhaps only Chaplin has found greater success from within his own studio, though of course he brought critical glory as well as box office revenue.

Chaplin bears a strange resemblance to Sandler (stick with me) He often played a down-and-out loser, directionless in life that finds love with a beautiful, younger woman and redemption along the way, it’s not that different really from the Sandler character template. The difference is though that Chaplin brought earnest and charm to his films, Sandler tends to play it from a more juvenile angle, a technique that has brought a lot of his critical vitriol over the years.

Chaplin looked to grow with each film, from City Lights through to Modern Times and The Great Dictator, but time and time again Sandler has shown he will revert back to type. The Meyerowitz Stories may give critics and dissenters an opportunity to see his range; but soon enough he will be back with his buddies again, back where he feels at home. In a few years time another film may come along the will give us glimpse at Sandler’s real talent, but that’s probably all we are ever going to get, a glimpse. Roll on Grown-Ups 3, you know it’s going to happen.

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Written by:

Sam May
@Sjmay92
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