Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: The Sandler Case Study

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

Breaking from the usual format of Best Summer Ever, I’ve decided to devote this column to America’s favorite press-shy man-child Adam Sandler. I’ve been reflecting on Sandler a lot these last weeks, mostly trying to figure out why I find him so interesting. I’ve determined that it’s the frequent intersection of his introverted real life persona and the awkward, stuttering, violence prone characters that he plays that I find fascinating. It’s also the fact that, bumbling persona aside, Sandler is a control freak millionaire firmly invested in the commercial mind-rot churned out by the studios every summer.

Sandler has made a lot of really dumb movies. And from that dumbness, a pattern emerges, one that speaks to a lot of the recurring themes of this column. So, let’s take a look at Sandler’s 6 year streak of summer films – a streak I’d wager is close to unmatched – and figure out why the fuck it exists, and what, if anything, it means.

Now I'm a football player that's not slightly retarded!

Adam Sandler Movie: The Longest Yard
Total Gross:  $158,119,460, #8 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 31% vs 67%

“The bigger handicap is Sandler's temperament. Football is not a sport for Jewish passive-aggressives, and so the central joke has no kick (or tackle).”
-David Edelstein, 2005 Salon review

The Longest Yard marks an interesting transition for Sandler in the mainstream, one where he leaves behind the lovable rageaholic loner he’d been playing from Billy Madison through Anger Management and instead attempts to be more of a traditional movie star. While The Longest Yard remake certainly underwent the same goofy “Sandlerization” (a term coined by Alexander Payne, I’ll get to him later) as his other films, here Sandler inhabits a hero role more suited for a handsome Hollywood A-lister like Tom Cruise, Will Smith or, obviously, Burt Reynolds 30 years prior. He’s supposed to be Courtney Cox’s trophy husband! Would you buy that?

The Longest Yard was the biggest opening of Sandler’s career up to that point. The money was there, even if the positive reviews weren’t. Could Sandler have continued on in the role of smart-mouthed summer season hero? Maybe churn out some Bulletproof style action comedies? Audition for the Will Smith part in Hancock?

Apparently not. Someone in Sandler’s camp must have agreed with Edelstein that it was tough to buy Sandler as a swaggering leader of men because, the following year, the actor would go in the opposite direction.

Middle-aged wish fulfillment.

Adam Sandler Movie: Click
Total Gross: $137,355,633, #8 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 33% vs 72%

“Women really like you, I think because you’ve got vulnerability. You can do those very big things that work in silent films and there’s this blue collar vibe to you that people find accessible.”
-Russell Brand, during an incredibly awkward interview with Adam Sandler

Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to take another crack at the mainstream blockbuster genre, Sandler here attempts to mount the second largest cash-cow of summer – the family film. In Click, Sandler’s bored family man discovers a magical remote control that allows him to skip past his wife’s droning lectures and stop time so he can fart on the face of his boss.

Eventually, he also learns a valuable life lesson.

Who does Sandler target with Click? Likely the grown-up frat boys who 10 years earlier ran a perpetual loop of Billy Madison as background to their beer pong tournaments, now saddled with families of their own. Yet, despite a premise that could only appeal to children, Sandler can’t tone down the raunchy slapstick enough and the film is branded PG-13. Sandler is rewarded for this half-ass transition to family friendly with more mediocre reviews and a $20 million drop-off in box office gross.

The film did, however, pick up a People’s Choice Award for Best Comedy, thus proving Russell Brand correct. Sandler is, indeed, a suitable everyman; a nonthreatening and relatable comedian, film’s version of Jay Leno.

So, let’s make a movie about the gays.

Ewwww icky!

Adam Sandler Movie: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Total Gross:   $120,059,556, #14 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 14% vs 73%

"The movie has some of the expected stereotypes, but in its own disarming way, it's a call for equality and respect."
-Damon Romine, GLAAD representative

I’m going to avoid discussing how repulsive (or covertly progressive) Chuck & Larry is and instead use it as an example of just how in control of his career Sandler is during this period. It’s not an accident that he’s bounced from sports-comedy blockbuster to family friendly fare and back to high concept raunch-comedy. These aren’t just the roles Sandler was offered – these are the roles that Sandler developed. Every film on this list was produced by Sandler’s Happy Madison production company. He receives a producer or executive producer credit on all but one.

Here’s some fun trivia: the second draft of Chuck & Larry, then titled Flamers, was co-written by Alexander Payne (writer/director of Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, etc). While still the same goofy high concept of two firefighters getting gay married to bilk the state, Payne’s draft has been described as “sensitive, but sharply funny.” Sandler came on board and added some soap-dropping gags. Payne requested his name be removed from the credits.

Sandler knew what he was doing. Note that 73% grade bestowed on Chuck & Larry by the general public. Doesn’t that seem like a rebuke to Payne and fruity critics that can’t take a joke? For what it’s worth, Chuck & Larry is the best fan-reviewed film on this list.

It still did $17 million worse than Click.

This happened.

Adam Sandler Movie: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
Total Gross: $100,018,837, #17 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 36% vs 50%

“I like it, because it was opportunity to do a comedy with Adam that had stuff that you don't normally see, not just in an Adam Sandler movie, but in a summer comedy as well. I was excited about the opportunity to tackle this crazy sensitive subject in a movie. “
-Robert Smigel, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan screenwriter

Here’s another example of Sandler’s power as a producer, albeit a less successful one. Have a script about a super-powered Mossad agent that escapes the counter-terrorism life to become a hairdresser? Has said script been collecting dust since you and co-writers Robert Smigel and Judd Apatow tabled it in 2001 as too risky a post-9/11 project? Fuck it! Let’s make that movie!

Zohan, which surprisingly has the best critical reviews of any of the Sandler produced projects in this article, is evidence of Sandler being able to do pretty much whatever he wants, no matter how goofy. However, Zohan’s sexually voracious Israeli ubermensch was too bizarre for Sandler’s adoring public; it has the worst audience reception of the comedian’s summer films, resulting in a low-water mark for Sandler, a $20 million decrease in gross from Chuck & Larry, edging Sandler dangerously close to the ignominious sub $100 million precipice.

Thinking about all his bad movies in his giant swimming pool.

Adam Sandler Movie: Funny People
Total Gross:   $51,855,045, #23 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 68% vs 58%

“[This] was stuff that I haven't done in a long time; I haven't talked that filthy in front of people. People recognize me. I've been around a long time. I go onstage and these nice people who know me as a certain type of person and then I'm onstage and I'm as filthy as can be, I'm watching and some people are into it and some people are going, 'No. Don't ruin it for us.'”
-Sandler, on doing stand-up for Funny People

Unsurprisingly, the only film on this list on which Sandler doesn’t receive a producer credit is also the best. Judd Apatow’s sprawling dramedy was one of my favorite films of 2009 (I’d also contend that it is Apatow’s best film), a showcase for the emotional depth and ample pathos that Sandler secrets away in the interest of connecting with his mainstream audience. It is equally unsurprising then, with his audience alienated, that Funny People grossed $49 million less than Zohan.

During press for Funny People, a chore the introverted star usually takes pains to avoid, Sandler tried to make clear that the embittered superstar comedian he played on screen had no connection to his real life. Still, it’s hard not to view Funny People’s George Simmons as a mirror for Sandler’s recent work. There’s a clip from George Simmons’ filmography where his head is CGI’d onto a baby body – it’s intended to be satirical, but is that really such a far cry from, say, dressing in drag to play your own twin sister? If that isn’t Sandler nursing scorn for his choice in mainstream roles, past and future, then it’s his old buddy Apatow winking and twisting the knife.


Adam Sandler Movie: Grown Ups
Total Gross: $162,001,186, #8 at the box office that summer
Rotten Tomatoes Critics vs Audience: 10% vs 59%

“The movie is symptomatic of a social attitude that might be called the security of incompetence.”
-Stephen Holden, 2010 New York Times review

“I went outside the other day and I had a new Maserati in the driveway. Now I think I’m Adam Sandler’s bitch.”
-Chris Rock, on receiving a Maserati as a gift from Sandler for starring in Grown Ups

Rebuked by the mainstream for making something smart, Sandler finally broke his 5 year streak of declining profits with 2010’s Grown Ups. It would become Sandler’s second biggest earner of all time, behind only Big Daddy. It’s also a reprehensible cash-grab by all involved, a colossal circle jerk in which none of the principles exert even a token effort to breathe life into what has to be one of the hackiest, most vapid scripts ever produced.

But at least it made a lot of money, right?

In these Best Summer Ever columns, I’ve written about how larger-than-life summer blockbusters don’t have to be inherently bad. I’ve also written about people that can punch their own ticket, like Steven Spielberg, and whether or not they owe it to the ticket-buying public to produce halfway intelligent films.

While Sandler obviously has nowhere near the clout of Spielberg, he is still the closest approximation Spielberg has in the world of comedy. Via his A-list status and his production company, Sandler is able to call his own shots. He’s less beholden to the studios than most. The studios will always churn out lowest common denominator dreck in the interest of collecting $10 a head from ticket buyers that simply want to turn off their brains. Bad and brainless films will exist, no matter what. Shouldn’t someone like Sandler, who has the power to get virtually any film made aspire to more?


Why should he bother? Look again at the numbers from the last 6 years. The riskier the project, the lower the gross. I’d argue that part of the reason Sandler avoids the press is because he is sensitive to criticism; he knows what he’s making is often mind-numbingly horrible. As penance, every few years, Sandler teams with a director that does care about comedy, like Apatow or James L Brooks, and does something that elevates the medium. But the combined gross of every serious film Sandler’s ever made isn’t equal to that of one Grown Ups. And so, until we start paying to see smarter comedies, the screaming man-child control freak pragmatist will just keep voicing talking monkeys.

(31) 2006
(19) 1988
(14) 1985
(13) 1993
(10) 1997
(9) 1998

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