I’m a fan of subway film criticism. It’s one of the pleasures of being a movie fan in New York, like Film Forum double-features and midnight cult films at the Landmark Sunshine; a wise guy with a Sharpie often articulates our collective reaction to a film more succinctly with a few words on a subway ad than any number of critics can in a thousand-word review. Take, for example, this pointed little barb recently spotted on the L-line. Scrawled across the poster for Jack and Jill, the new Adam Sandler picture in which he plays both a regular Joe and — wait for it — his own twin sister, are the words “not even f*cking trying anymore.” Glancing over at Sandler’s wide-eyed mug, it seems a perfect marriage of word and image.
Let me make this clear, right off the bat, in a probably-doomed attempt to prevent a repeat of last week’s Eddie Murphy fiasco: In spite of the fact that he’s responsible for some of the worst films in recent movie memory, I like Adam Sandler. What is interesting about Sandler, what makes the question of exactly what he’s doing cranking out junk like Jack and Jill worth asking, is the fact that not only does the guy have talent, not only does he clearly know good movies from bad, but he is obviously aware that the films he’s making are lowest-common-denominator slop.
Need proof? Go watch Funny People. Written and directed by Sandler’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator Judd Apatow, Funny People stars Sandler as George Simmons, a stand-up comic turned movie star who is only separated by the thinnest veneer of fictional artifice from Sandler himself. George Simmons went from modestly edgy stand-up comedy to making bad formula comedies like Re-Do (a wizard grants him the wish of youth by turning him into a baby with a full-sized Sandler head) and Mer-Man (a funny-voiced male mermaid tries to fit into society). These movies-within-the-movie would seem like far-fetched and purposefully outsized parodies had we not had the misfortune of sitting through Click and Little Nicky. “He’s so funny in real life,” says one of the film’s characters, bewildered. “I wonder why his movies aren’t funny?”
It’s a valid question. The answer, it would seem, lies in the subway scrawl — he’s not even trying anymore. When Sandler began making big-screen vehicles, you could see some effort; few would place Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore in the top ranks of movie comedy, but they’re reasonably funny, modestly entertaining little flicks. Somewhere along the line, though, something changed. Your mileage may vary, but I’d put it right around Little Nicky — a film with a fairly clever central premise, a big budget ($85 million), and some worthwhile co-stars, but a script that was sloppy at best and insulting at worst. The “jokes,” such as they were, were seldom developed, and the project’s primary concern appeared to be that of his subsequent filmography: providing paychecks to an increasingly omnipresent and expanding group of Sandler’s friends, co-stars, and hangers-on—directors Steven Brill, Frank Coraci, and Dennis Dugan, writer Tim Herlihy, supporting players Rob Schneider, David Spade, Kevin Nealon, and Kevin James, and second-stringers Allen Covert, Nick Swardson, Peter Dante, and Jonathan Loughran.
That crew would soon find themselves with plenty of work, as Sandler had just established “Happy Madison Productions,” a company dedicated to be the presentation of films far inferior to its namesake efforts. Aside from churning out the worst of the Sandler oeuvre (Mr. Deeds, Anger Management, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Bedtime Stories, Grown Ups), the Madison shingle has also inflicted upon the movie-going public vehicles for Schneider (the Deuce Bigelow movies, The Animal, The Hot Chick), Spade (Joe Dirt, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, The Benchwarmers), James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Zookeeper), and even Covert (Grandma’s Boy) and Swardson (Bucky Roberts: Born to Be a Star). And, of course, it is Happy Madison that brings you Jack and Jill.
The “Happy Madison” imprimatur does serve one worthwhile purpose: its absence from a Sandler picture indicates the strong possibility that it might be a good movie, or at least that he will be good in it. When he steps away from his network of sycophants and enablers, we end up with a nuanced performance like Spanglish, or even an all-around great film like Punch Drunk Love. But those films, and other outside-the-box efforts like Reign Over Me and Funny People, were not box office successes; the adult audiences they were geared towards stayed away, because they were “Adam Sandler movies,” while his target demo of perpetually teenaged boys either steered clear entirely or poisoned those films with toxic word-of-mouth after opening weekend viewings confirmed that their hero wasn’t doing bathroom jokes in a baby-talk voice.
A comparison of the box-office grosses of Punch Drunk Love to his Happy Madison production of the same year, Mr. Deeds ($24 million vs. $171 million), or of Funny People to Sandler’s follow-up Grown Ups ($71 millions vs. $271 million) would indicate that the actor is doing something right, at least financially speaking. But it’s worth asking how that gravy train will continue to run. Happy Madison’s Bucky Roberts was not only a critical flop (0% on the Tomatometer) but a financial one as well, opening at #15 with a $1.4 million opening week, pulled from theaters after week two. Sure, that wasn’t a Sandler vehicle — but that was a Sandler supporting player in a movie from Sandler’s production company, that Sandler himself co-wrote.
And the anticipation of Jack and Jill has not exactly been enviable; any film whose trailer warrants a response video that becomes a viral hit may not be firing on all cylinders, buzz-wise. The move is out this Friday, and who knows — maybe it’ll be another $100+ million hit for Adam Sandler. But even he can’t pretend any more that his heart is in it. Jack and Jill doesn’t just look like a joke movie from Funny People; it looks like one of the fake trailers in Tropic Thunder. It looks like a movie that Sandler’s buddy Spade would’ve mocked mercilessly in the “Hollywood Minute” back when they were on SNL. There’s a famous story about George Clooney, that after the debacle of Batman & Robin he got together with his agents and accounts and lawyers and asked if he’d made enough money now. When they confirmed that he had, he was able to focus on doing smart, personal movies for adult audiences — and that’s what he’s done since. One wonders what kind of miracle it would take for Sandler to arrive at the same place.
What do you think? Is Sandler even trying anymore? Will you see Jack and Jill? Is the whole movie some kind of meta-joke? Or is he just doing what he does best?