There once was a time (that ended in 2006 with Don’t Mess With The Zohan) that an Adam Sandler film would hit equally the very different funny-bones of my dad, my brother and me. This was rarefied air indeed, as only Mel Brooks and Sasha Baron Cohen could also put us all in fits of stitches at the same time.
Sandler’s shtick has never really veered away from that in his early films, defined by the shoddy and cheap yet unpretentious, charming and innocent Happy Gilmore, Billy Maddison and The Wedding Singer. But something went missing from his later output that has been alienating and, most damningly, unfunny, vulgar and mean-spirited.
I have continued to return to his films, but only due to nostalgia and for the respite their lack of vanity offers from my usual film consumption. His films have never again been shared experiences, and are consumed on aeroplanes when you have licence to watch the most disposable films.
Those of you familiar with Sandler’s canon, won’t be surprised that I am excluding here films made outside his prolific production company Happy Maddison, films such as Punch Drunk Love, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories. These movies are prime examples of Sandler’s shtick being applied by three different auteurs, without his typical self-indulgence and seeming laziness.
That laziness and self-indulgence over the last decade or so has given Sandler films the appearance of being paid holidays for Adam and his devoted acting and production cohort. It has stripped away the necessary charm and innocence, and left only the cheap shoddiness, vulgarity and mean-spiritedness that exposes the business in showbusiness. It would be unfair to claim that Sandler as star and producer is contemptuous of his audience, yet time and again we are delivered his angry, insulated, smirking, man-child persona re-heated with a new side dish of glamorous female co-star and exotic location.
All this begs the question, what does an established comedic star owe their viewers, if anything, after thirty years of work? In Sandler’s two latest films both produced under his mega-bucks, exclusive Netflix distribution deal, we are given the opportunity explore if Adam Sandler has any value to contemporary audiences.
This year’s Murder Mystery sees Sandler play a blue-collar, unsuccessful but talented New York cop with co-star Jennifer Anniston as his aspirational, crime-fiction obsessed wife, both caughtup in a real life Agatha Christie style murder mystery while vacationing in the south of France. It’s an inventive and funny premise. But as with all recent Happy Maddison productions, the film is let down by its jokes, plotting and charaterisations that lean into the lazy and obvious.
I frequently caught myself wondering how much more could have been mined from Sandler, the premise and the locations by a disciplined filmmaker with a well-articulated point of view, like Paul Thomas Anderson did in Punch Drunk Love, Judd Apatow did in Funny People, and Noam Baumbach did in The Meyerowitz Stories. If you want something on your TV while you vacuum the house, then this is your film.
Then there is last year’s Netflix release, The Week Of. It is a film just as shoddy, cheap and poorly-acted as many other Sandler films, a comedy that commits the near fatal flaw of being almost devoid of any laughs. And yet all the charm and innocence of Sandler’s early films can be found in abundance. This is most evident in Sandler’s heart-felt, honest and relatable performance as a genial, proud, working class Long Island dad, who despite his limited means and pressure from his rich, soon-to-be in-laws wants to give his daughter the best wedding he can manage.
The plot is full of obvious obstacles and hangs on a basic, countdown-to-the-big-day story structure, but as I watched it I was struck by how its charming and innocent depiction of an unpretentious, un-educated, lower class Jewish man and his family, inverts a common stereotype of Jewish people, frequently reinforced in mainstream entertainment. In the film, these characters thwart those who hold a limited mono-cultural view of Jewish people as clever, abundantly resourced and ruthless manipulators for their own power. Indeed, in recent years Sandler has increasingly played a openly working-class, highly relatable Jew, and I imagine has done so deliberately.
It is in this that I find Sandler’s immense value. When many people are unfortunately and increasingly relying on lazy stereotypes, Adam Sandler is de-mystifying the Jewish experience and disarming those who wish to demonise and exploit it. I may never recapture the fun of watching one of his films with my dad and brother again, and I probably won’t ever value them artistically, but more power to you Adam Sandler for being a truth teller and myth debunker. Take your well-earned stage, keep using it to bring disconnected people a little closer together and bring on the Safdie Brothers’ gritty crime dramedy, Uncut Gems, in December.
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About the author
Trent Bartfeld is an award-winning filmmaker, a freelance writer and educator who has developed and created content across multiple mediums in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
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