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Navigating the Adam Sandler movie minefield

The man who made horrible films, such as "50 First Dates," has also wonderfully funny films like "Happy Gilmore" and the new "Funny People."
/ Source: contributor

I cracked somewhere around “50 First Dates,” that Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler romantic comedy about how she’s got a weird specific love amnesia and can’t remember anything that happens the day after it goes down. It’s great news for him, of course, because he can use the same tired shtick over and over and she’ll think it’s awesome every single time. For the audience, it’s a reminder of what we already knew: Adam Sandler is never not Adam Sandler in any movie he’s in.

I don’t think “50 First Dates” was meant to cause anyone harm, but I felt like Sandler was pelting my face with tiny pebbles every single second he was on screen. And there came a moment during the otherwise forgettable, unfunny dialogue when a character said, “I’ve had enough.” I turned to my viewing companion and said, “Funny, so have I.” Then we both got up and walked out.

But because it’s my job to watch movies, I couldn’t boycott his films and get away with it. So along came “Click.” I try never to walk out of films I have to review (not that I haven’t done just that, without remorse), so I vowed to bolt myself to the seat until it was over. After using a magical remote control to fast forward through all the good stuff life has to offer (hot showers, sex, eating) so that he can make more and more money, Sandler’s old-age-makeup-wearing protagonist lies in a rain puddle during a torrential thunderstorm and croaks out, “Family … comes … first!”

And I’d like to formally apologize to the two older ladies seated in front of me at that screening because I’m sure I gave them an unnecessary jolt when my response was “HAW HAW HAW HAW HAW!” during what was supposed to be the film’s poignant moral climax. I know I made them angry because they shot me a couple of really scrunched up faces and dagger-eyes.

And now comes “Funny People.”

I’m a big Judd Apatow fan. I like how his characters never stop talking and how it makes his films run well over two hours, not something comedies are usually supposed to do. I like how even though 50 percent of what they say is scatological, somehow Apatow makes it seem like they’re delivering wisdom-adjacent truths about humanity in the process.

I like that he has an ongoing thesis. It goes something like this: “You are kind of a tool. You’re not an irredeemable tool, but you’re still kind of a tool. Time to grow up a little bit.”

Smart humor is smart humor no matter what the subject matter. I like how, in spite of his critics assailing his films as boys clubs, his female characters have as much personality as the men and they give as good as they get. They’re not clichés and they’re not doormats.

So when I saw the first billboards for the new film, I thought, “Here comes Adam Sandler to stink up the place.” But then I saw the movie, and it was the smartest, most adult thing I’ve ever seen from both the director and its star. It might even have the most penis jokes. I’m not sure how all that managed to coincide, but it did.

Re-evaluating SandlerSo I had to re-think Adam Sandler. I mean, not fully. I’m not turning apologist. Because “50 First Dates” and “Click” are still crap. So is “Bedtime Stories.” So is “The Longest Yard” and “Spanglish” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.” Oh yeah, and “Mr. Deeds.”

But I think now I know why. Every one of those films tried to compromise who he is. If the first few Sandler-starring films (“Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Waterboy”) were territory markers of a person who defiantly refused to grow up, the guy who thought there was no filmic moment that couldn’t be improved with some doodee jokes. Many of the latter star vehicles tried to package him as guys he just wasn’t meant to be: romantic lead, generous spirit, thoughtful husband, mercenary creep, fake-gay, or smartest man in prison.

You don’t have to think those first starring-role comedies were funny, even though I do, but they were pure in a way that later projects never were. They farted on you and laughed and laughed and laughed about how funny it was to fart on someone. And then laughed at you if you didn’t laugh back.

The juvenilia was so deep and thick that it became the secret language of a generation of mid-1990s middle-school kids who believed they’d found their Jerry Lewis, even if they’d never heard of Jerry Lewis.

Think of those early Sandler movies like Madonna songs. Everybody likes the disposable fun of “Lucky Star” and “Into the Groove.” But who likes “American Life?” The minute you try to pretend you’ve got something more important to say, that’s when you risk falling on your face. Or, in Sandler’s case, into a pile of freshly delivered feces from some wacky zoo animal.

There are always exceptions. “Punch Drunk Love” tried to play off the inherent disconnect between the serious ambitions of its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Sandler’s readymade developmentally stunted persona. That it came off more odd than anything else was at least news that the man could — and more importantly, was willing to — take a step in a new direction.

No one wanted to see Sandler as an emotionally shut down widower in “Reign Over Me,” but it was a weirdly refreshing experience to watch him intentionally walk away from comedy and into something as anti-comedic as a 9/11 drama opposite serious actor Don Cheadle.

Then he made a post-9/11 comedy, “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan,” which is as close to a political comedy as the man has ever gotten. It’s mostly awful but full of jarring guilty laughs all the same. It’s hard not to laugh when a disco-loving heterosexual hairdresser/secret agent with a huge penis (one of the film’s ongoing sight gags) is lustfully chasing after Mrs. Garrett from “The Facts of Life.” And catching her. And, well, you know.

And now comes the Apatow movie Sandler didn’t ruin with funny voices. One that actually mocks him for those funny voices. One where he’s the tool who never really grew up. He just got rich and famous and more unhappy. And it’s more rueful and dark and as close to the misery that underlines almost all comedy as you could ask from a guy who starred in “Little Nicky.” Do I lose even more credibility for confessing to laughing through “Nicky,” too? Probably.

Dave White is the film critic for and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at