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Comic smackdown: Sandler vs. Ferrell

One's an overgrown manchild, the other a wise-cracking charmer. By Mike Miller

One burst onto the movie scene as a child-like, manic husband who messed up his marriage because he joined a fraternity. The other shuffled and wise-cracked his way into viewers’ hearts as he went from moron to romantic lead. Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler aren’t the biggest former “Saturday Night Live” stars, but their comic appeal and willingness to work in a variety of projects have established them as two of the most visible ex-SNLers today.

Plus, they each have movies coming out this month — Ferrell’s “Kicking and Screaming” opens May 13, while Sandler’s “The Longest Yard” opens May 27 — so it seemed like a good time to see which funnyman wins the Celebrity Faceoff.

Place your bets and remember, this only applies to movies. Comparing their SNL careers would be an impossible task.

Impact performance
The roles are different, but it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” “Madison” created just a blip at the box office and was written off by critics. Fast-forward one year to “Gilmore.” Thanks to VHS, Sandler’s audience grew and “Gilmore” — still his most quotable movie — was a hit. But I’d argue “Gilmore” needed “Madison” because of the built-in audience. The roles aren’t too different — he’s a dolt in “Madison” and jock in “Gilmore” — and he gets the girl in both, but with these films, Sandler sets the stage for every movie he’s ever done. Yet, as far as impact goes, Sandler comes up short against Ferrell.

Forget “A Night at the Roxbury” and his cameos in the first two “Austin Powers” (“I’m not dead, just very badly burned!”). Ferrell’s key role is in “Old School” as Frank the Tank. Frank is oblivious, daring, drunk, loud and always funny. He’s a pile of manic humor. Though he’s third banana behind Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn, you’d never know it. His “Home Depot” line — “Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we’re going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath & Beyond, I don’t know, I don’t know if we’ll have enough time.” — alone is enough to top Sandler. EDGE: Ferrell.

Defining performanceTough call. Ferrell hasn’t turned in his truly defining performance yet, though “Anchorman” is close. It’s classic Ferrell with the wild assumptions, the random shirt-off moment, and he allows his “I’m an ass” routine to flow freely. “Kicking and Screaming” could be the real thing, mostly because Ferrell will get to go from quiet to loud and back again.

“Wedding Singer” established Sandler’s current persona where he gets to be his normal wise-cracking self as a romantic lead. He owns this role: charming, smart and safe. Sure, it led to his current career plateau, where every Sandler movie seems the basically the same. Nowadays, he can sleepwalk through this role.

It’s like the “South Park” where Cartman dressed up as the “A.W.E.S.O.M.-O 4000 to mess with Butters, only to get kidnapped by Hollywood producers convinced this genius “robot” could create an unlimited number of movie premises.

A.W.E.S.O.M.-O: “Um...okay, Adam Sandler is in love with this girl...and she’s like, a golden retriever...or something.” Studio Executive #1: “That’s brilliant!” Studio Executive #2: “We can call it ‘Puppy love.’” A.W.E.S.O.M.-O: “Movie Idea #2305: Adam Sandler is trapped on an island and falls in love with a coconut.”

Despite the current dearth of daring comedic Sandler roles, he’s certainly defined his career, good or bad. EDGE: Sandler.

BankabilityAt this point, even with Sandler’s “Little Nicky” mess, he could probably take any one of Cartman’s pitches and have it gross $100 million. His last two comedies, “50 First Dates” and “Anger Management” had middling reviews, but were definite box-office hits. Ferrell, hot off “Elf,” which grossed more than any Sandler flick, couldn’t get “Anchorman” to the $100 million mark. But Ferrell’s just getting started. After this summer, he may have two more $100 million movies to his name. EDGE (for now): Sandler.

RangeThis isn’t as clear cut as you’d think, despite Sandler branching out into dramas. “Punch Drunk Love” and “Spanglish” weren’t his usual comedies, but only “Love” required him to play someone other than himself. In “Spanglish” he’s Adam Sandler, only with kids. In comedic terms, Sandler doesn’t branch out much. He’s the same guy, again and again.

Ferrell’s range seems to go from quiet exasperation to overblown exaggeration with occasional nudity thrown in. Neither one has range, but only Sandler seems to be trying the dramatic roles so far. SLIGHT EDGE: Sandler.

Surprise hitCritics probably call any Sandler movie a surprise hit. But when “Wedding Singer” grooved its way to $80 million in February and “The Waterboy” made twice that 10 months later, Sandler had arrived and no critic could figure out why. We fans knew why. But neither of those can touch the surprise of “Elf.”

Ferrell had just quit SNL. And he’d only been in modest hits, “Old School” included. And “Elf” featured him in full-blown elf gear, green hat, tights, pointy shoes and could have been so cloyingly sweet that people got type 2 diabetes just watching it. But it wasn’t. It was fun, goofy — OK, a little too sweet — but most importantly featured Ferrell in all his manic goodness. How it grossed $173 million and became the seventh highest grossing movie of 2003, outdoing “The Terminator,” “Matrix: Revolutions” and “The Hulk” is amazing. EDGE: Ferrell.

Surprise bomb“Anchorman,” despite the letdown coming off “Elf,” wasn’t a bomb. Ferrell’s two SNL spinoff movies — “A Night at the Roxbury” and “Superstar” — were, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. SNL movies routinely bomb. Sandler, on the other hand, only has one real bomb. But, man, it was a big one.

Sandler followed “Waterboy” with “Big Daddy.” Nothing special, but a nice, safe movie with some laughs that did well at the box office. Then came “Little Nicky.” Bottom line, this is the last time Sandler has ever played the “moron” character. (No, I refuse to include the animated feature “Eight Crazy Nights” in this section. Animated Adam isn’t the same.) Sandler’s last five movies have featured him playing himself. But until Ferrell makes his “Little Nicky” he’ll always have this over Sandler. EDGE: Ferrell.

Will your girlfriend/wife/boyfriend/husband watch his movie?
Nearly every women I know loves Sandler. And I mean loves him. As far as they’re concerned, he’s Tom Hanks circa 1991. He may as well be a big ’ol Teddy Bear that makes them giggle uncontrollably.

“Sandler manages to say things/do things that I can totally picture guys I know doing — the same guys I want to get mad at, but just can’t because they are so damn cute and innocent!”

“Adam Sandler is totally sexy. I’ve had a huge crush on him from way back. First, he’s totally hilarious. He’s goofy but in a really smart way.”

“I think he is more sexy and I think I could date, him. He is funny but has a certain seriousness about him and he is handsome, too.”

Ferrell, on the other hand, usually rules the male vote. Part of me thinks that it’s because Ferrell does the crazy things men think are always funny — streaking, spouting off ridiculous phrases — but women tend to find juvenile. Part of that is because at well over six feet tall, Ferrell can’t be cuddly. But, as anyone who’s seen “Elf” knows, he can be lovable. Still, the safe bet is a Sandler flick when it comes to a date. Save Ferrell for the fellas. EDGE: Sandler.

Worst comedy momentCan someone rip “Little Nicky” too much? Probably not. I don’t know if it’s the permanent scowl, the Mobil Oil hair, or what, but the movie just makes me shudder. Though, the same goes for “Zoolander.” You’d think playing fashion mogul/diabolical genius Jacobin Mugatu would lend itself to some comic moments, but you’d be wrong.

In the battle of who’s movie is the worst, does anyone really win? EDGE: Viewer with discerning taste.

Quotable“Anchorman” was a litany of inane lines, ready made for quoting. “Old School,” in addition to the Bed, Bath & Beyond quote, also has “It tastes so good when it first hits your lips.” But Sandler mastered the killer quote in his early movies.

“Billy Madison”“I AM THE SMARTEST MAN ALIVE!” (after spelling couch).

“Happy Gilmore”“You eat pieces of s--t for breakfast?”And, of course, “The price was wrong, bitch.”

“Wedding Singer”“Once again, things that could have been brought to my attention YESTERDAY!”

Nowadays, Sandler is losing ground, but he’s got a big lead. EDGE: Sandler.

Cultural impactThis may be the most critical factor because it determines a comedian’s success. Can the guy ensure that people will go see his movies again and again?

Sandler’s established his Hollywood persona and it works. He’s a certified box office success who can venture into dramatic roles on occasion with critical applause. If consistency counts, he’s the equivalent of “Law & Order”: You always know what you’re gonna get and it rarely dips too low or soars too high.

But Ferrell is a shooting star. I wouldn’t call him an overnight success — after seven years on SNL and doing bit roles in movies, he’s earned his shot — but after two starring roles and his bravura role in “Old School,” Ferrell seems poised for something huge. He’s everywhere. And every movie is a must-see because he’s in it — except for “Melinda and Melinda” (even Ferrell can’t save Woody Allen’s latest). Ten years from now, Sandler may still be making movies, but Ferrell will be in the Jim Carrey, Mike Myers league. EDGE: Ferrell.

OverallSandler’s been in the game longer, so it makes sense that he’d come out ahead. “Longest Yard” is a nice way to stay ahead, too — and avoid the glut of ho-hum roles. And if he wants to throw in a little manic Sandler, à la “Billy Madison” or “Happy Gilmore,” even better. A return to one’s roots never hurts.

Ferrell’s on the rise and is my personal favorite, but comes up just short. He can’t compete with Sandler’s box-office success. For now. If he can make “Kicking and Screaming” a hoot and make “Bewitched” work, then the man is destined for greatness.