This Is Where I Leave You
The family gathering comedy is one of the more difficult genres to pull off. Good for Levy for trying something different. But next time he…
In his review of "The Waterboy" (1998), Roger Ebert wrote: "Do I have something visceral against Adam Sandler? I hope not. I try to keep an open mind and approach every movie with high hopes. It would give me enormous satisfaction (and relief) to like him in a movie. But I suggest he is making a tactical error when he creates a character whose manner and voice has the effect of fingernails on a blackboard, and then expects us to hang in there for a whole movie."
But Ebert did hang in there -- not just for one movie, but for many. A year later, reviewing "Little Nicky," Ebert noted: "I've met Adam Sandler a couple of times and he's a nice guy, smart and personable. Considering what I've written about his movies, he could also be described as forgiving and tactful. What I cannot understand is why he has devoted his career to finding new kinds of obnoxious voices and the characters to go along with them."
Eventually, he did find a movie he could like Sandler in: Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002). Ebert wrote: "It may be the key to all of the Adam Sandler films, and may liberate Sandler for a new direction in his work. He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he? Who would have guessed he had such uncharted depths?"
But the depths had become shallows again by the time of 2003's "Anger Management." Quoth Ebert: "Everything about the way the movie goes wrong -- the dumbing-down of plot developments, the fascination with Sandler's whiny one-note character, the celebrity cameos, the cringing sentimentality -- indicates a product from the Sandler assembly line. No doubt Sandler's regular fans will love this movie, which is a return to form after the brilliant 'Punch Drunk Love.' Nicholson's fans will be appalled."
Herewith, Ebert on the movie career of Adam Sandler:
"Happy Gilmore" (1996)
"Happy Gilmore" tells the story of a violent sociopath. Since it's about golf, that makes it a comedy.... "Happy Gilmore" is filled with so many plugs it looks like a product placement sampler in search of a movie. I probably missed a few, but I counted Diet Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi Max, Subway sandwich shops, Budweiser (in bottles, cans, and Bud-dispensing helmets), Michelob, Visa cards, Bell Atlantic, AT&T, Sizzler, Wilson, Golf Digest, the ESPN sports network, and Top-Flite golf balls.
I'm sure some of those got in by accident (the modern golf tour has ads plastered on everything but the grass), but I'm fairly sure Subway paid for placement, since they scored one Subway sandwich eaten outside a store, one date in a Subway store, one Subway soft drink container, two verbal mentions of Subway, one Subway commercial starring Happy, a Subway T-shirt, and a Subway golf bag. Halfway through the movie, I didn't know what I wanted more: laughs, or mustard.
"The Wedding Singer" (1998)
"The Wedding Singer'' tells the story of, yes, a wedding singer from New Jersey, who is cloyingly sweet at some times and a cruel monster at others. The filmmakers are obviously unaware of his split personality; the screenplay reads like a collaboration between Jekyll and Hyde. Did anybody, at any stage, gave the story the slightest thought? The plot is so familiar the end credits should have issued a blanket thank-you to a century of Hollywood lovecoms....
The basic miscalculation in Adam Sandler's career plan is to ever play the lead. He is not a lead. He is the best friend, or the creep, or the loser boyfriend. He doesn't have the voice to play a lead: Even at his most sincere, he sounds like he's doing standup -- like he's mocking a character in a movie he saw last night.
"The Waterboy" (1998)
I believe in giving every movie the benefit of the doubt. I walked into "The Waterboy," sat down, took a sip of my delicious medium roast coffee and felt at peace with the world. How nice it would be, I thought, to give Adam Sandler a good review for a change. Goodwill and caffeine suffused my being, and as the lights went down I all but beamed at the screen.
Then Adam Sandler spoke, and all was lost. His character's voice is made of a lisp, a whine, a nasal grating and an accent that nobody in Louisiana actually has, although the movies pretend that they do.
"Little Nicky" (2000)
All of this is kinda fun, and some of it more than that. I can see how "Little Nicky" could have worked, It's just that Sandler, at the center, is a distraction; he steals scenes, and we want him to give them back. He's 35 now. I know you can play an adolescent all of your life (consider Jerry Lewis), but isn't it time for us to see the real Adam Sandler? When I met him, I thought to myself, this guy has movie star potential.
"Punch-Drunk Love" (2002)
There is a new Adam Sandler on view in "Punch-Drunk Love" -- angry, sad, desperate. In voice and mannerisms he is the same childlike, love-starved Adam Sandler we've seen in a series of dim comedies, but this film, by seeing him in a new light, encourages us to look again at those films. Given a director and a screenplay that sees through the Sandler persona, that understands it as the disguise of a suffering outsider, Sandler reveals depths and tones we may have suspected but couldn't bring into focus.
The way to criticize a movie, Godard famously said, is to make another movie. In that sense "Punch-Drunk Love" is film criticism. Paul Thomas Anderson says he loves Sandler's comedies -- they cheer him up on lonely Saturday nights--but as the director of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" he must have been able to sense something missing in them, some unexpressed need. The Sandler characters are almost oppressively nice, like needy puppies, and yet they conceal a masked hostility to society, a passive-aggressive need to go against the flow, a gift for offending others while in the very process of being ingratiating.
"Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights" (2002)
Won't "Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights" attract an audience for reasons (holiday images, Sandler's popularity) that have nothing to do with the material? What are people who want to see an Adam Sandler movie going to take home from this one? Sandler's most recent film, the inspired and wonderful "Punch Drunk Love," was not well received by Sandler fans; I heard from readers appalled by the way his audience responded to the film--before, in some cases, walking out. (How can someone in the dark of a movie theater tell "his audience" from themselves? Easily: The giveaway is inappropriate laughter, especially during serious moments.)
Sandler has painted himself into a corner. His comedies have included generous amounts of antisocial hostility, sudden violence, dodgy material about urination, defecation and flatulence, and a general air of defiance. A lot of people like that. But they are not the people likely to understand the Hanukkah message in "Eight Crazy Nights." And those who appreciate the message are likely to be horrified by a lot of the other material in the film. What Sandler has made here is a movie for neither audience.
"Big Daddy" (2002)
"Big Daddy" is a film about a seriously disturbed slacker who adopts a 5-year-old and tutors him in cynicism, cruel practical jokes and antisocial behavior....
The predictable story arc has Sonny and Julian bonding. This is not as easy as it sounds, since any Adam Sandler character is self-obsessed to such a degree that his conversations sound like interior monologues....
There have been many, many movies using the story that "Big Daddy" recycles. Chaplin's "The Kid" used Jackie Coogan as the urchin; "Little Miss Marker" (versions by Shirley Temple and Walter Matthau) was about an innocent tyke and a bookie; Jim Belushi's "Curly Sue" has some of the same elements. What they had in common were adults who might have made good parents. "Big Daddy" should be reported to the child welfare office.
"Mr. Deeds" (2002)
At one point during the long ordeal of "Mr. Deeds," it is said of the Adam Sandler character, "He doesn't share our sense of ironic detachment." Is this a private joke by the writer? If there's is one thing Sandler's Mr. Deeds has, it's ironic detachment.
Like so many Sandler characters, he seems fundamentally insincere, to be aiming for the laugh even at serious moments.
"50 First Dates" (2004)
The movie is sort of an experiment for Sandler. He reveals the warm side of his personality, and leaves behind the hostility, anger and gross-out humor. To be sure, there's projectile vomiting on a vast scale in an opening scene of the movie, but it's performed by a walrus, not one of the human characters, and the walrus feels a lot better afterward. This is a kinder and gentler Adam Sandler.
When I mention that the father of the family is played by Adam Sandler and is not its craziest member, you will see she has her work cut out for her. And yet the movie is not quite the sitcom the setup seems to suggest; there are some character quirks that make it intriguing....
John [Sandler] is a chef -- in fact, according to the New York Times, the finest chef in America. You would therefore expect him to be a perfectionist tyrant with anger management problems, but in fact he's basically just that sweet Sandler boy, and at one point he is asked, "Could you stop being so stark-raving calm?"
"The Longest Yard" (2005)
I kinda liked it, in its goofy way. There was a dogged ridiculousness to the film that amused me, especially in the way Adam Sandler was cast as a star quarterback. Once you accept Sandler as a quarterback, you've opened up the backfield to the entire membership of the Screen Actors' Guild....
I do not say that I was wrong about the film. I said what I sincerely believed at the time. I believed it as one might believe in a good cup of coffee; welcome while you are drinking it, even completely absorbing, but not much discussed three weeks later. Indeed after my immersion in the films of Cannes, I can hardly bring myself to return to "The Longest Yard" at all, since it represents such a limited idea of what a movie can be and what movies are for.
Yet there are those whose entire lives as moviegoers are spent within the reassuring confines of such entertainments. In many cities and some states, there are few ways for them to get their eyes on movies that can feed their souls. They will have to be content with a movie in which Adam Sandler plays an alcoholic has-been football hero who gets drunk, drives dangerously, is thrown into jail and becomes the pawn in a football game pitting a team of fellow prisoners against a team made up of prison guards. As I sit here, so help me God, I can't remember who got the idea for this game or why. I could look it up, but it's fascinating to watch myself trying to reconstruct a movie that was not intended to be remembered as long as it takes to get to the parking lot. This is how you learn. Through experience.
It's not just sad, it's brutal. There's an undercurrent of cold, detached cruelty in the way Michael uses the magical device. He turns off the volume during an argument with his wife. He fast-forwards through a boring family dinner, and later through foreplay. He skips ahead to avoid a bad cold. He jumps to the chapter where he gets a promotion. Eventually, he realizes the family dog has died and been replaced by another, his kids have grown up, his wife is married to someone else, and he weighs 400 pounds. It happened while he wasn't paying attention.
Like many other Sandler movies, this one lingers studiously over bodily functions. After losing enormous amount of weight, for example, Michael plays with a big flap of loose skin around his stomach, plopping it up and down long after any possible audience curiosity has been satisfied. During an argument with his boss (David Hasselhoff), he freeze-frames the boss, jumps on his desk and farts. When he puts his boss back on "play," the boss inexplicably decides his secretary has put feces in his salad. Anyone who can't tell poop from lettuce doesn't deserve to be a senior partner. They teach you that in business school.
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A photo gallery offering snapshots from The Ebert Dinner at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.