In November of 2000, I wrote a piece for The Oregonian that claimed the genius of Adam Sandler. It did not go over well with friends or I suspect, many readers. After all, this was before Punch-Drunk Love, a movie I predicted would make critics eat crow. Following is my four-year old defense of Sandler's misunderstood, frequent comic brilliance with added information about projects since then:
Critics hated Adam Sandler. They hated him in his breakthrough film Billy Madison and they hated him in Little Nicky. They are not alone. Even his fellow comedians, at one time hated him. I wonder if they still do.
Why such intense vitriol for the seemingly innocuous Cajun Man or Canteen Boy (two of his SNL characters)? A quick catalog of the many attacks lobbed against him:
He's dumbing down American culture. He's stuck in toilet-humor land. He's lazy and unoriginal. He's offensive. He's annoying. He's stupid. He's unlikable. He's unfunny. His picture's stink. He's mean spirited. He leads children to violence, bad manners and slackerdom.
At the time I wrote this, it was hard to find any comic actor who had aroused this sort of reaction. Maybe early Jim Carrey and of course, Jerry Lewis (though not so anymore--that genius has finally deserved his due). Sandler resembles (especially in his most obnoxious roles--The Waterboy comes to mind) the legendary Lewis so beloved by the French that he represents, in part, the ugly American. So perhaps it will take the French, so expert at applying intellectual categories to the Hey-lady-isms of Lewis to provide philosophical sheen for Adam Sandler. With a few more films, I predict Sandler could become the next cause celebre in Paris.
Meanwhile (in 2000 anyway) the invective continued here in the States. Comic legend Albert Brooks actually compared Sandler to "cancer" in the "Words into Pictures" comedy panel discussion held in Los Angeles. Said Brooks of the multiplication of movies by the likes of Sandler: "By the way, let's do what else America likes. How about cancer? They all seem to get that. Must be good! People keep getting it!"
Brooks, curmudgeonly and maybe a bit jealous, clearly didn't (and maybe still does not) fancy Sandler. And he didn't trust audiences who like him. Continuing with his unpleasantness, the creator of such elevated comic fare as Modern Romance and Defending Your Life observed, "Audiences can only know what they're given. If you get up ont he stage and do an hour and a half of fart jokes, people laugh and they go home. But maybe one day, if you did 20 minutes of, maybe, I don't know, talking about God, then maybe the fart jokes in ten years won't go over as well."
Wait a second...Adam Sandler doesn't talk about God? Hadn't Brooks heard "The Hanukkah Song?"
"Put on your yarmulke/It's time for Hanukkah/Two-time Oscar winning Dustin Hoffmanaka/celebrates Hanukkah."
I do understand Brooks' frustration with terrible pictures reaping huge box office and I understand his annoyance with the lowest common denominator. I also see Brooks' belief that many of Sandler's pictures are sub-par (even after his comments Sandler made the disapointing Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky and 50 First Dates though Anger Management proved highly amusing at times) and that a lot of idiots frequented Sandler movies--they do.
Ten sat behind me as I tried to watch Big Daddy (but that's not Sandler's fault). Some of their "clever" witticisms? "Oh my God, gross! A gay guy!" (in response to Sandler's more daring decision in making one of the characters gay as no big deal--these mouth breathers didn't get it). With that, I had to re-evaluate just why I was sitting there. How can I, a person who worships early screwballs, Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman and Bill Murray actually love Sandler?
Because he's right up there with the best of them.
The man/child makes me laugh. Opera Man was so stupid it was funny. The recurring penguin in Billy Madison was an absurdist delight. Sandler screaming obscenities at a golf ball in the great Happy Gilmore makes me chuckle uncrontrollably (another favorite part--when he responds to Christopher MacDonald's threat of "I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast" with, "You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?"). Listening to him sing/yell "whooop-a-dee-doo!" with manic intensity in The Wedding Singer (a movie that should have clued naysayers into his talent with vulnerable characters) fills me with hearty satisfaction. His frequent displays of violence more than amuse me. I like chicken humor. I think he's charming, even attractive. I like his voice. Why? Because he works on a primal, gut level that's much more smarter than it appears.
Case in point, the verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown, off-kilter, romantic and brilliant Punch-Drunk Love. As Barry Egan the put upon brother to seven overbearing sisters while employed as an administrator to one of those vague California companies that sell lines of novelty products , Sandler was peerless. So alien yet incredibly human is he in the movie, that he and director Paul Thomas Anderson frequently put the viewer into a state of Barry-phobia. We have no idea what will happen next (but with delight and sometimes heartbreak). Sandler, who has displayed talent before this, has never been so fantastically abstract, utilizing his scared-yet-angry-but-violent-little-boy persona with a sublime darkness. Anderson's use of Sandler is akin to Alfred Hitchcock's use of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, pulling the dusky and misunderstood out of a popular American icon and layering him with wounded depth. But perhaps even more surprsing was the result, a film that manages to subvert and showcase the Sandler persona beautifully while simultaneously maintaining that particular Anderson eclat and being wholly unique.
And I love that PDL alienated much of the Sandler fan-base (particularly when he and his object of amour, Emily Watson, pillow talk about how they'd like to chew each others eyeballs or hit ones face with a hammer, which I find sweet).
With James L. Brooks' Spanglish, he'll bring in a new audience (and maybe some old Sandler stragglers seeking a Rush song) though critics, will no doubt, give him the well-he-couldn't-hack-it attacks. But with Spanglish, you might be amazed to hear that the best thing about the picture is Sandler. Flawed as the film is, it is Sandler who creates a romantic figure that's offbeat, sweet and meaningful. And the old Sandler rage (which really should be taken more seriously as a cry for the everyman--much like Paul Giamatti in Sideways) is wonderfully displayed in relation to his wife (played by Tea Leoni). Wanting to "set my hair on fire and punch myself in the face" works powerfully and hilariously here. More than anyone (even Paz Vega) Sandler injects the picture with its substance--the struggles of a regular guy who's not so regular after all. And get this; Sandler's been doing this for a long time. Just with lesser directors.
Sandler's ability is evident in all his pictures. He has a simultaneous assuredness and neurosis that even, when broadly comedic, never feels strained. His lean years as the young stand-up, confidently braving Manhattan clubs to work his way through New York University, shows in his self-possessed work. Switching from self-effacing to cocky to mentally deficient, he is able to make the Everyman recognizable, interesting and just plain bizarre (as so many people, secretly, are). And he rarely misses a beat. He's got the timing down.
So if PTA gets him, Brooks (James L.) gets him and even, Martin Scorsese (who had rightfully considered Sandler to play Joey Bishop in the never made Dino project) gets him what the hell is wrong with all those stick-in-the-muds?
Reviewers can be so easily snobby that I often think they're simply being lazy. They are certainly overdoing it. Think of Roger Ebert. His vehement antipathy toward Sandler is just flat-out unfair. Pre Punch-Drunk, Ebert absolutely refused to give a Sandler picture anything above a one star. How can this be? The Wedding Singer is clearly better than Billy Madison, and yet, Ebert did not budge. Here's how he started his film review for Happy Gilmore: "Happy Gilmore tells the story of a violent sociopath." What? Is this a film about Ted Bundy or an angry, orphaned struggling hockey player knocking golf balls into tin cups? And if the film were about a violent sociopath, would that possibly make it more interesting--especially a sociopath who loves his grandmother as much as Happy Gilmore does? Again, I've always been perplexed by such extreme vexation.
So, will it really take the French to proclaim Sandler the sometimes genius he is?
It could happen. The French have appreciated physical, slapstick humor for centuries. Seventeeth-century French playwright Moliere used it liberally in such popular plays as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, plays in which plot is less important than wild buffoonery. Moliere was even considered a careless writer, but his sense of comedy was so rich that the flaws seemed part of his comedic process.
Though some academics may cringe at the very thought of comparing Sandler to Moliere, both understand the No. 1 rule of comedy: Make people laugh. French critics are hep to it--they were quick to embrace Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis. Why do they get us?
Still, I think Sandler is showing up his previous critics. And one fine day, they will have to accept his talent. He's too funny, textured and perfectly psycho. He's not a "cancer," he is, like so many underrated comedians, a hell of an actor. And he should have won the Academy Award for Punch-Drunk Love. But give him time.