Saturday, May 19, 2012

Adam Sandler: From the Goofy to the Gratuitous

Any seasoned film buff would concede that Adam Sandler has never exactly been Oscar bait. His comedic films make for light, breezy entertainment. You never go into a Sandler film expecting debonair wit or original, introspective characters. You enjoy them for what they are—entertaining farces peppered with rambunctious scenarios. Of course, Sandler has experimented with his dramatic side through films such as Reign Over Me, Funny People and Punch-Drunk Love—films that have received mixed to positive reviews. It could be said that, since 2007, Sandler’s films have been especially disappointing (with exceptions granted to Reign Over Me and Funny People). Sandler made a name for himself in the 90s playing eponymous roles in films like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. These films weren’t technical masterpieces by any means, but we laughed because we believed in the goofiness of the characters. It was all a bit of campy fun. Nowadays, Sandler’s characters are caricatures of his past roles. This is telling when you consider that Sandler received a total of six nominations (a record) at this year’s Golden Raspberry Awards, winning four. Amazingly, Jack and Jill was nominated for twelve awards and won in every category. This article will attempt to get to the bottom of Sandler’s string of mediocrity (I’m being euphemistic), and strip bare the problems underlying his films.
As of April 2012, Sandler has either performed in or lent his voice to 33 feature films (including cameos). According to film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the most successful of these films has been Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. 79% of critics praised the film, presenting the consensus that it is “odd, touching, and unique.” This should come as no surprise, as Anderson’s five Oscar nominations establish him as a talented writer-director. Critics were not so impressed, and justifiably so, when it came to Dennis Dugan’s Jack and Jill, where Sandler played the role of identical twins. This is Sandler’s worst film, according to Rotten Tomatoes, where a measly 3% of critics gave it a positive review. Did Sandler think that playing two characters would automatically earn him praise? When the characters are vapid and uninspired, it doesn’t matter how many you play. Perhaps Sandler should have studied Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Tootsie. Remarkably, a mere 12.1% of Sandler’s films have received positive, or ‘fresh’, ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s right—only four out of 33 films. These films are Punch-Drunk Love (79%), Funny People (68%), The Wedding Singer (67%) and Reign Over Me (63%). Of these, The Wedding Singer comes closest to being a ‘typical’ Adam Sandler movie, but the film cannot be faulted for its unabashed sweetness. The other three films feature Sandler in a more mature performance, where over-the-top antics are exchanged for wry earnestness. Since 2007, Sandler has churned out seven films which have been deemed ‘rotten’ by Rotten Tomatoes’ critics. These include I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (14%), Bedtime Stories (25%), You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (36%), Grown Ups (10%), Jack and Jill (3%), Just Go with It (19%) and Zookeeper (14%). It should be noted that Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star—co-written by Sandler and produced by Happy Madison Productions—failed to receive a single positive review on the website. With 2009’s Funny People being the last ‘fresh’ film on Sandler’s résumé, that’s a streak of four ‘rotten’ films. Sandler has actually had a longer streak of misfires. Between 2002 and 2006, he featured in eight consecutive films that were panned by critics. However, the Tomatometers of these films are a lot more respectable than those of his four latest offerings. For those who are wondering, Sandler’s average Tomatometer score is 31%. That happens to be the aggregate rating of his 2005 reboot of The Longest Yard, so we can call that the typical Adam Sandler film.
Sandler’s films have generally fared well, but not astonishingly, at the Australian box office. That said, Sandler’s filmography is rather bereft of sequels, remakes and blockbuster films, so it’s understandable that his films don’t rake in gargantuan box office figures. On average, a film featuring Adam Sandler grosses $6,291,582. The most financially successful Sandler film in Australia to date has been The Wedding Singer, released all the way back in 1998. The film accrued a total of $11,196,306. The average grossing for a Sandler film between 1998 and 2006 was $5,608,808. For films released in 2007 and beyond, the average grossing is $7,429,539. Does this mean that cinema-goers give greater regard to Sandler’s films now than they did prior to 2007? Well, yes and no. All actors have their humble beginnings, and it follows logically that more people know of Adam Sandler now than they did when he broke onto the comedy scene. Hence, if it was 1999 and you had to choose between The Waterboy and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, you would probably side with the Austin Powers film, not only because you had seen its predecessor, but because you could rely on the comedic performance of an actor like Mike Myers, who you’d probably admired in the Wayne’s World films. As his career’s progressed, Sandler has starred alongside greats such as Jack Nicholson (Anger Management), Christopher Walken (Click) and Al Pacino (Jack and Jill), which hasn’t helped the financial performance of his films. However, a recent film like Grown Ups performed considerably well, most likely due to the combination of Sandler, David Spade, Kevin James, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider. Of Sandler’s ten highest-grossing films in Australia, half of them were released in 2007 or beyond. This can be attributed to the fact that Sandler is starring in more family-orientated films (Grown Ups and Jack and Jill were rated PG; Bedtime Stories was rated G), which means greater audience accessibility, and ultimately more bums on seats. Looking at the figures for opening weekend grossings, we notice that Sandler’s most recent offerings just aren’t drawing audiences in like his films once did. For films released in 2007 or beyond, the opening weekend grossing only accounts for, on average, 27.9% of the total grossing. If we compare this to Sandler’s films before 2007, where a film would gross, on average, 39.9% of its total grossing on the opening weekend, there is a considerable difference. In today’s world, where film advertising permeates our culture more than ever, you’d expect fans to be bursting at the seams with anticipation for Sandler’s films. This is not the case, and it seems that audiences are growing weary of Sandler’s repetitive shtick, perhaps using naive friends as test guinea pigs to brave his films.
To address Sandler’s recent run of puerile films, it is worth examining the common themes that permeate them. This requires content analysis of the Internet Movie Database’s plot keywords for Sandler’s post-2006 films. The most frequent word among the keywords is ‘relationship’, which is fairly inconspicuous. All great films feature relationships of various categories: familial, romantic, friendship, business, etc. That’s all well and good if the characters within the relationships are acutely developed, but more than a few of Sandler’s films are hampered by walking clichés. The second most prevalent word is ‘male’, appearing in keywords such as ‘male nudity’ and ‘male bonding’. Now, male nudity didn’t prevent Steve McQueen’s Shame from making a mark, and a film like Stand By Me poignantly explores the many nuances of childhood through a group of male friends. It’s the faux profundity of a film like Grown Ups which is proving a liability to Sandler’s acting career. Male-centric films act as a barrier between female audiences and potential empathy, and female audiences may well be baying for another Punch-Drunk Love. Other prominent keywords include ‘nudity’, ‘sex’, ‘gay’ and ‘panties’. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these plot elements. Sex and nudity is a feature of countless films, and can be handled tastefully and with sensitivity. Sandler seems to choose roles where being crude reigns supreme. Provocatively bathing elderly women is not funny. There’s no punch line to this behaviour, and yet this is what passes for a scene in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was panned by critics for its stereotypical depiction of homosexuals; however, Joanne Kaufman of the Wall Street Journal believes the film additionally insults “straights, men, women, children, African-Americans, Asians, pastors, mailmen, insurance adjusters, firemen, doctors -- and fans of show music.” It’s shocking to think that the vastly talented Alexander Payne contributed to the screenplay, but it comes as no surprise to learn that Sandler allegedly “Sandlerized” Payne’s initial draft. All in all, these keywords imply that in order to restore some credibility to his name, Sandler may need to work in films where both sexes are given equal representation, and where the jokes are innocent and relatively inoffensive. Being risqué is one thing, but telling the same unfunny joke over and over again is another.  
Looking at Sandler’s upcoming attractions, it looks as though no significant improvement will take place anytime soon. This year will see the release of the comedy That’s My Boy, as well as the animated feature Hotel Transylvania. That’s My Boy is directed by Sean Anders, whose Sex Drive was a raunchy teen road movie with many funny scenes. Regardless, it’s unlikely that this one film, which also stars Andy Samberg, will be the catalyst for a major upheaval in Sandler’s career. The really disappointing news is that a sequel to Grown Ups is scheduled for release in 2013. Dennis Dugan, who has garnered a reputation as the accomplice to Sandler’s downfall, will reprise his role as director.
If this article comes off as harsh, it is only because I am longing to see Mr Sandler explore his full potential. He’s shown glimpses of his capabilities in serious efforts and sweetly sentimental romantic comedies, and it’s a shame his latest films appeal to the lowest common denominator. I miss the old Adam Sandler—the one who fought with Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore; who serenaded Drew Barrymore on a plane in The Wedding Singer; and who had the ambition to star in an art film like Punch-Drunk Love. That was the Adam Sandler I loved.

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