Neoclassicist Sandler – Reviving the Screwball Comedy

Adam Sandler, easily one of the most disliked film stars to ever grace the screen aside from a couple of his films in the 1990s (namely Big Daddy, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, the three films of his that seem to have been granted a certain immunity by most), has to be the most mercilessly over-hated actor in film history alongside somebody else who I’m also going to write about shortly, Nicolas Cage. There’s no doubt that Sandler has been in some pretty terrible films: comedy is of course subjective, but personally I find Mr Deeds and Jack & Jill pretty unwatchable. There’s also no doubt that Sandler has intense talent as both a comic and dramatic actor after having seen him prove himself consistently throughout his entire filmography. Reign on Me, Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems show his more serious side, and in all three films he does an excellent job being rooted in reality. The Sandman has three modes, it seems; he can be serious, he can play straight laced and quick witted and he can play Jerry Lewis style slapstick characters equipped with ridiculous vocal delivery and bizarre physical comedy attached. All three of these crop up time and time again throughout his work, sometimes by themselves but sometimes mixed together as, for example, in Reign on Me which is mostly a serious role but also involves a light sprinkling of the Jerry Lewis style of performing for levity and expression.

Much like Nicolas Cage, it appears that a large part of the hate for Sandler comes from his choice of roles and for his acting style. Even more similar is their choice to lean towards experimental acting, performances that strike as being inspired by German Expressionist cinema (or the aforementioned Jerry Lewis in the case of Sandler) as the two actors deviate from Hollywood’s modern lust for realism in all performances across the board. We’re living through times wherein acting is seen only through one lens by most, and that is how convincing a performance is. No merit is given to those who dare to venture further afield, unless it is a clear trait of their character as a performer (such as Dwayne Johnson’s performance in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle for example, it’s self aware and tongue in cheek so it is given a free pass when he smoulders, raises his eyebrows and flexes his muscles constantly). Sandler subverts this, and thus is punished through the majority of his work.

One other reason for Sandler being shunned quite as ruthlessly as he is is his leaning towards an unpolitically correct gross-out comedy style that pretty much died a death when Obama became president (or just before that), a style that the Farrelly Brothers practically kissed goodbye with their brutal last hurrah for the genre in their remake of The Heartbreak Kid, taking Elaine May’s comedy classic and turning it into one of the most mean spirited Hollywood films ever produced, but also a damn funny one. When Grown Ups 2 released in 2013 and opened with a joke about a deer urinating on Sandler, it’s not difficult to imagine the audience flashing back to Freddy got Fingered and instantly feeling their brains switch off as the link between modern comedy and ‘switch your brain off nonsense’ is completely tied together by contemporary audiences. 

Uncut Gems' Has a Pretty Big Sports Goof and It's Driving People Crazy
Uncut Gems (The Safdie Brothers)

This is so interesting due to what it says about the audiences themselves, however. The fast talking comedies of the 1930s through to the mid 1950s, the Screwball comedy era, are largely the backbone of American comedy as decided by critics and audiences alike – they are the golden era, they are the untouchable classics of comic film along with Chaplin’s tramp and perhaps a couple of Mel Brooks’ films, but this appears to be a purely nostalgic acclaim that these films have garnered. In a time when Judd Apatow has transformed comedy like Play-Doh into SNL-esque ‘realist comedy’ as I’ll call it, with its grounding in reality in terms of both situation and character work, Sandler’s films aren’t fit to fly. They’re films of a bygone era, a mixture of the gross out comedies which once topped the box office and the golden era classics of Hollywood comedy that receive large acclaim but are seen as something that cannot exist today, it seems. Both Grown Ups films and Hubie Halloween especially show this. 

Grown Ups 1 and 2 both have *very* flimsy narratives – they are propelled largely by the stars, their camaraderie and charisma along with some set-piece type written in gags that thrust things forward (only when it feels necessary). The first film is essentially plotless – the character are brought together by the death of their basketball coach from their school days a la John Cassavetes’ 1970 masterpiece Husbands, and from there on they mostly riff on one another for ninety minutes with small conflicts arising and mostly innocently fizzling out in the background. Grown Ups 2 takes this further, stripping its narrative back to simple set ups and punchlines that give the film a comic momentum that it relies on as if it were a stand-up show as opposed to a film, and it works brilliantly. Here, Sandler is his straight laced and quick witted family man persona – a man’s man as it were, middle aged and allowing time to pass him by with only a focus on keeping things right with his family and having fun, even if the two don’t always see eye to eye. He’s essentially a filmic Homer Simpson, a devoted man who makes human mistakes and is therefore forgiven by the other characters and the audience for his being real. 

The other side of this coin is mostly seen in Sandler’s earlier work, such as Billy Madison and the Waterboy, but Hubie Halloween brought back the crazier side of Sandler that leans more into physically altering himself to make his characters come to life. The Waterboy is one of my favourite of all of Sandler’s films, and it is so great due to his performance that fits within only this world. It wouldn’t fit into any other film, but it speaks volumes about his acting ability that Sandler is able to fit into a world as surreal as The Waterboy’s is and make it work as if nothing were strange about it. He merges the mannerisms of Lewis with the slapstick of Chaplin for a new era punctuated by the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something about Mary and Freddy Got Fingered, channelling the best elements of all of them simultaneously.

Movie Reviews - Adam Sandler, 'Just Go With It' - No, You Really Shouldn't  : NPR
Just Go With It (Dennis Dugan)

Sandler may be a sentimentalist, but it works so beautifully that it’s hard to fight against it much of the time. Sandler’s romantic comedy work is perfect, him being great for charisma and playing off of dialogue beautifully. 50 First Dates, Spanglish, Just Go With It and Blended all work wonders because they lean so much into the values of his characters and make his love for his co-star feel so genuine even in these usually comedic worlds that otherwise steer away from reality. Just Go With It is maybe the single best example of Sandler re-inventing the Screwball comedy as he sees fit with that incredible script that constantly throws in additional tensions but never really makes them tense in a way that isn’t comical. It’s a phenomenal filmic juggling feat as the film flutters between situational comedy, dialogue and character work, romance and sharing its own perspectives and values on modern romance in such a way that would have impressed Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby is a clear reference point for the script). 

It has to be said that Sandler clearly takes much inspiration from many of the greatest comic filmmakers of all time – Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and the Farrelly Brothers just to name a few – and mixes them with his own personality (straight laced and quick witted Sandler is clearly an extension of himself, or a fantastical version at least) to extend into something more. He’s a fantastic actor, cruelly overlooked for his style that will hopefully be looked back upon with far more love than it currently receives.

Spanglish - Plugged In
The harshly overlooked Spanglish (James L. Brooks)

My Favourite Adam Sandler films, just for fun (chronologically)

Billy Madison

The Waterboy

Big Daddy

Punch-Drunk Love

50 First Dates

Spanglish

Click

Funny People

Grown Ups 1 and 2

Just Go With It

The Cobbler

Uncut Gems

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