(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Having inadvertently gone through most of Adam Sandler’s filmography in short succession (don’t ask why), I’ve been circling Reign over Me as a final pièce de resistance. After all, it’s often mentioned in the same breath as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People as the three movies showing Sandler’s range as a dramatic actor. Best to keep the best for last. As it turns out, the critics are right: While Reign Over Me isn’t a completely successful film, Sandler does get a good performance as a debilitated widower endlessly mourning his wife and daughters killed on 9/11. His aggressive man-child persona here comes across as pathological and off-putting, a cry for help that the film’s protagonist (Don Cheadle, as good as ever) seeks to answer even as he himself needs to change. Reign Over Me does overplay its melodrama at times, and doesn’t quite know what to do with its characters. (Sienna Miller’s character, in particular, feels like a punchline for too long in the middle of such a dramatic film, and one gets the sense that she ends up as a prize to be won.) There are tonal problems, the ending feels off in ways that don’t entirely satisfy and Sandler doesn’t get much to do other than mope and lash out in anger. Still, Reign Over Me often feels like a successful experiment. Even today, it’s one of the few Hollywood movies to use a specific videogame in a thematically appropriate fashion, and it has a dramatic weight that we don’t usually associate with Sandler. Congratulations to director Mike Binder for coaxing such a performance out of him and channelling his inner rage into a worthwhile character.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) I’m halfway convinced that a good comedy could have emerged from Pixels’ premise: What if classic gamers were the only chance to save Earth from comically misguided aliens? Unfortunately, there’s no way Adam Sandler could have been associated with said hypothetical good comedy, because Pixels as it exists right now is a big misfire. You can see how the premise was corrupted the moment Happy Madison productions touched the picture, in how Sandler gives himself a middle-aged teenager’s role (hitting on divorcees almost as a first order of business), inexplicably presents Kevin James as President of the United States and keeps going in that vein. The absurdity leads to, and I’m not making this up, a human/alien hybrid that … yeah, I don’t want to talk about it. If Pixels is a predictable failure as a comedy, it can be partially redeemed as a special effects spectacle: From time to time, the aliens attack the earth with voxels and the special effects are actually fun to watch. The New York Pac-Man sequence is generally enjoyable, and there’s a bit of amusing chaos toward the end of the film, even though the climax compresses itself to a disappointing Donkey Kong sequence. There’s probably something interesting to write about how eighties pop culture is now entering its second nostalgic phase, but Pixels gives very little substance to discuss. After all, there’s a much better movie to be made from Pixels than Pixels.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) Every six months comes another silly Adam Sandler movie. Even if Bedtime Stories falls under the Disney banner, the choice to target younger audiences doesn’t affect Sandler’s humour all that much: it’s still juvenile and broadly obvious. The high-concept premise here has to do with an underachieving janitor discovering that bedtime stories have real-world effects, and trying to take advantage of those for personal gain. Of course, the real plot has something to do with Sandler mugging for the cameras, first in fantasy sequences and then again in the film’s version of its real world. Some of it actually works, as silly and asinine it can be. At times, we’re left wondering what Guy Pearce did to deserve being stuck in a dumb movie like this; at other times, there are a few good jokes in trying to link fantasy with reality. Sandler himself has his own kind of charisma, even though Bedtime Stories often feels like a too-late attempt to recapture some of his earlier less mature roles, limited by rating from going in his typical angry man-child persona. It doesn’t amount to much, though, and kids will be served by plenty of other better movies.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) In developing a sequel, there’s a difficult balance to strike between offering more of the same, and offering just a little more than the original to satisfy. Hotel Transylvania 2, for all of its faults, actually manages to find this elusive balance: By moving forward the story a few years later, and by focusing the themes of parental anxieties onto another generation, it refreshes its own themes while still offering many of the same attributes that made the first film a success. Adam Sandler once again reprises his unusually sympathetic vampire-dad character, now faced with the possibility that his grandson may not actually be a vampire. Various hijinks ensue, bouncing back and forth between Transylvania and California in a world that is obviously not ours given its broad acceptance of real monsters. The set pieces are lively and if the film does seem to lose its way during an unremarkable third act, Hotel Transylvania 2 gives audiences what they expected, and what they’re ready to accept. The series remains firmly ensconced in the second tier of animated features, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
(On TV, September 2015) I’m not a big Adam Sandler fan, but have seen enough of his films by now to say that most of them are likable in a fairly generic way –crude, oftentimes gross, certainly lower-common-denominator, but still aiming for kind of a genial comforting middle-America male consciousness. Little Nicky is irritating in ways that I can’t completely articulate, though: From the early curious fascination with Hitler’s rectum, the simpering protagonist, the badly-executed CGI gags or the haphazard structure, this is a film that feels more botched than most, without much in terms of overall direction or aesthetics. It’s a dumb comedy, granted, but it seems more aggressively dumb than most others in the Sandler filmography. Sandler himself is annoying to watch, leaving little of his natural charm to carry viewers over to the end. Terrible special effects don’t help, and neither are the various pot-shots at easy targets or the uninspired lack of thematic depth in what could have been an effortless opportunity to add more substance to the script. In the grand scheme of Sandler’s career, Little Nicky is definitely a film at the end of his first, more immature phase –it’s easy to see 2002’s subsequent Mr. Deeds as a course-correction for the excesses of this one (not to say anything about Punch-Drunk Love, also immediately subsequent.) This is strictly for Sandler completists.
(On TV, August 2015) Social progress can be measured in laws and statistics, but it’s also a matter of unsaid stereotypes and evolving culture. Watching I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry eight years after its initial release, I’m stuck most strongly about the film’s uneasy relationship with gay stereotypes, as it presents two heterosexual men marrying for obscure (and frankly nonsensical) administrative benefits. On one hand, the film is good-natured enough to (eventually) argue firmly in favour of progressive values, show homophobia in a bad light and affirm that sexual orientation isn’t something that should be discriminated against. Coming from the mid-naughties, after Canada had legalized same-sex unions but before most of the US followed suit, that wasn’t too bad. But then again I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry crassly makes a lot out of stereotypes, characters spouting regrettable epithets and a barely-repressed attitude that “isn’t it hilarious to pretend to be gay???!?” as a freak-show. I certainly hope that the very same plot wouldn’t be developed in the same way today. It’s best to consider I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry as a relic of its time, at a moment when same-sex marriages were past reprobation, but well before they were normalized. More shocking is the realization that this review spent nearly two hundred words discussing social progress before mentioning that this is an Adam Sandler film, and that he is more or less up to his usual crude shtick here. He is, of course, portrayed as a strongly heterosexual man (and the film stops just as a same-sex kiss with Kevin James was coming up.) Don’t think that the film is all harmless: As disturbing than the gay stereotypes is seeing Rob Schneider in yellow-face, with a broad and unfunny imitation of an Asian character. Otherwise, the dumb comedy of I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry pales in comparison to its socially-risky premise: it’s all dumb gags, obvious developments, flat direction and an expected conclusion. There may be something interesting to say about slipping a dose of progressive values to Sandler fans under the deceptive guise of a dumb comedy, but I’ll let others tackle that train of thought –I’ve blathered long enough about the film already.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) There is a good reason why Funny People often comes up in any discussion of Adam Sandler’s career: While Sandler has done dramatic roles elsewhere (Punch-Drunk Love, Reign over Me), his turn in Funny People as a terminally-ill famous comedian trying to grapples with his impending mortality builds upon his performances in other, far sillier movies. It’s a masterful use of an existing actor persona by writer/director Judd Apatow, and Sandler actually gets some dramatic mileage out of his role. A good chunk of the film isn’t bad either: the dramatization of the stand-up comedian’s life in Los Angeles is fascinating, and the film features a bunch of good performances by other actors, from an unusually serious turn for Seth Rogen (with similarities to material later explored in 50/50), to fine performances by Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, Jonas Hill, Aubrey Plaza and a ton of comedy cameos. (The Hill/Rogen interactions are fascinating, especially given the trajectories that both of their careers took afterward). Some of the meta-commentary about Sandler films, usually seen through glimpses of the terrible movies featuring the protagonist, are a treat for any followers of American comedy films. Happily, there is some thematic and emotional heft to it all, striking a good balance between comedy and drama. But it could have been better. The first half of Funny People is conventionally satisfying… then comes The Twist, and the second half of the movie seems at odds with the first, the pacing slowing down to a crawl, the setting, characters and tone changing significantly. Apatow, of course, does what he pleases –and his films have never been accused of being too short. But at two-and-a-half hour, Funny People seems to lose its way at some point, and tightening up the result could have worked wonders. Still, Sandler’s striking performance remains, and the result is an impressive collaboration between a gallery of notable circa-2009 comedians.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) At the time of Anger Management’s release, there was something a bit clever in casting Adam Sandler in the role of a meek man who is led by circumstances into assuming his innate aggression: Early-career Sandler exemplified a violent man-child comic persona, so much of Anger Management is spent waiting for the inevitable explosions. (After 2002’s Mr. Deeds, his persona would be softened to a gentler good-guy one.) To see him paired off with Jack Nicholson (who has spent much of his late career perfecting abrasive characters) is a further wonder. And, at times, Anger Management works: there are funny set-pieces, many showcase moments for Nicholson’s ability to be both unpleasant and compelling and Sandler navigates a fine edge between his early aggressive persona and his latter-day amiable everyday-man. Marisa Tomei is likable in a somewhat generic role, with fun performance in smaller roles from Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. (There are also more than a few celebrity cameos, as is often the case in Happy Madison-produced movies.) Where Anger Management gets in a bit of a mess, however, is in its messy collage of absurd contrivances, late-revealed conspiracy, attempts to link back to a childhood prologue and ultimate claim to be about something else than simple anger management. The last few minutes are a series of “Really? Really??” that don’t add much to the film, especially when its reason for existing is simply seeing Sandler face off with Nicholson –if the film’s poster could get that right, then why didn’t the script? Of course, Adam Sandler films aren’t exactly known for tight scripts and focused scenes – sometimes, it’s best to just enjoy the comic set-pieces and ignore the attempts at making it all mean something at the end.
(In French, On TV, February 2015) Surprisingly enough, this Adam Sandler film doesn’t feel all that much like an Adam Sandler film… largely, I suspect, because it’s a remake of a 1974 film. Not having seen the original, I’m left wondering at the remake and how I’m pretty sure it has neutralized a lot of the original’s seventies realism in favor of more contemporary jokes. Sandler isn’t particularly credible as a NFL-level football player, but he’s charming enough in the lead role, and allows the supporting characters to get their laughs. Chris Rock has a good role as an inmate fixer and so do James Cromwell and William Fitchner on the prison staff side. Not being a football fan, I found the film interminable during its far-too-long third act, set during a football game that never seems to end despite fairly preordained plot points. But then again, I’m not really the target audience for this film: I suspect that The Longest Yard will appeal far more to those with an interest in football, prison machismo and Adam Sandler. There are enough jokes to make much of the film pass by harmlessly. Of note is the realization, seeing a French-dubbed version of the film, how much I’ve come to associate Chris Rock’s voice with his effectiveness as a comedian.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Low expectations are a powerful thing: Given my track record with Adam Sandler’s most recent comedies, my overall lack of affection for Drew Barrymore, my general exasperation at broad family comedies and the rather pointed criticism of Blended as a borderline racist comedy, I really wasn’t expecting much from the time. But it turns out that once you’re willing to cut a pick of slack to the film, Blended work relatively well as your average Hollywood family comedy. Sandler of late seems to be settling into an innocuous father-figure comic archetype, not particularly funny but more palatable than his younger angry man-child persona. Barrymore is unremarkable and there is some truth to the racism accusations (still, signing Terry Crews is hilarious even in his thankless role), but the African scenery is spectacular, the feeling of being in a five-star resort is credibly rendered, and there are amusing character moments here and there. It’s not much (and Blended does not end on a high note by stretching out its foregone conclusion past the resort experience) but with the power of lowered expectations it’s just enough to be entertaining.
(On TV, January 2015) I watched Grown Ups 2 before its prequel, and no one will be surprised to learn that it didn’t make a bit of difference. The scripts is written so loosely as to shrug at continuity. This is a lazily-conceived film in which comedians get to practically play themselves on-screen, lounging around and telling lame jokes. Fans of those comedians will love seeing them play their persona (I’m a big fan of Chris Rock and Maya Rudolph and I liked seeing them on-screen, so this is speaking from personal experience) but otherwise there isn’t much substance here. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to an understanding about the appeal of Adam Sandler’s movies. They, simply put, are comfort movies. Dealing in archetypes and cheap jokes, they provide certainly and predictability. That may appear simplistic, but it’s not given that they can appeal even to those with nothing in common with their characters. Watching Grown Ups, I know exactly what I’m going to get, which values are being espoused, which stereotypes I will see on-screen. I become part of a larger society with well-understood rules and conventions. There’s comfort in not having to think, and understanding the context without making any effort. Again; I realize that this sounds arrogant, but it really isn’t: My take-away from Grown Ups is that it takes quite a bit of cleverness (much of it innate) to pull off its particular sense of comedy. I may not be stimulated by the result, but I can’t argue that it works. Alas, I also remember Grown Ups 2, and realize how much worse this formula can be.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I may be off to lunch here given my lack of familiarity with the Adam Sandler oeuvre, but it seems to me that Mr. Deeds marks a bit of a transition between the violent man-child persona of Sandler’s early movies (most notably Billy Madison) and the more good-natured family-man persona of latter films (most notably the Grown-Ups series). This is not, obviously, a comment on increasing or decreasing quality of his movies – just an entirely predictable evolution from a young comic’s persona to a middle-aged actor’s most appropriate roles. Sandler still gets to assault someone (a fake mugging), but he spends most of the film as a likable small-town pizzeria-owner abruptly thrust in the cutthroat world of Manhattan finances after an unlikely inheritance. The plot mechanics are standard and the jokes are lame, but there are occasional laughs to be found in the details and the character work. Winona Ryder is at her peak-cute moment as the love interest, but John Turturro turns in much funnier material as a supporting character who then becomes far more important to the plot’s conclusion. Still, this isn’t even near close to middle-brow entertainment: The characters act in ways that make no sense away from dumb comedies or kids shows, while elements of the plot are brutally stupid. I suppose I’d feel outraged about this being a remake of a well-liked Gary Cooper film if I have a deeper knowledge of historical cinemas, but in the meantime I can just say that Mr. Deeds isn’t particularly good on its own merits.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) Sometimes, the deepest questions are spurred from the most humble origins. So it is that a lazy, self-indulgent and contemptuous film such as Grown Ups 2 can lead us to existential questions such as “Are we doomed to ever-decreasing standards of popular entertainment? Should I be ashamed of my own reactions to a film? Am I part of the problem?” Because, from the very first deer-urination moments of the film, it’s obvious that Grown Ups 2 takes the dumbest and laziest approach to comedy filmmaking. I haven’t seen the first film, but I doubt it would make much of a difference when Grown Ups 2 seems so satisfied with the broadest male-centric humor, mining bodily functions, basic life dilemmas, major insults, crass humiliation and worn-out clichés. It has the discipline of taking place on a single day, but that’s the last time “restraint” will be used to describe the aimless, quasi-random nature of the script. As series of “and this happened” episodes rather than a progression toward something meaningful, Grown Ups 2 simply strings along the gags as little skits, paying no attention to tone or logic. A massive party gets organized out of thin air, characters get to satisfy their soul-searching within moments and there’s never any attempt at creating something more complex than a simple setup-response comic structure. It’s shoddy filmmaking at best, and it’s a wonder that a low-brow film so badly conceived can not only be released theatrically, but earn a decent amount of money along the way. And yet, and yet… this is from Adam Sandler, after all, and it’s not as if audiences go in this film expecting fine writing and solid structure. Even antagonistic audience will find a few laughs during the comic carpet-bombing practiced here: I laughed a few times myself even as I was wondering how a movie could be this objectively bad. Heck, there are even a few nice things to say about various bits and pieces of the whole: Taylor Lautner turns in his most animated performance yet as a frat leader, while fans of (say) Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph and Steve Buscemi will be satisfied by their quick appearances. Should I be forced to say something nice about the script, I’d have to be impressed at the way the movie juggles along dozens of speaking characters while giving them all something to do. But the point is: Even as classically bad as it is, Grown Ups 2 has enough laughs to make it an enjoyable and undemanding weekend-evening viewing. I have enjoyed far superior movies far less, and it pains me to admit that the lowest common denominator does include all of us. I’m glad I haven’t paid a cent to see it, though.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) From the first few moments, in which we see a vampire father taking care of his baby daughter with hilariously re-worked parenting lullabies and tricks, it’s easy to be won over by Hotel Transylvania’s easy blend of sweetness, humor and dark visuals. One of many recent kid’s animated movies to exploit horror imagery in relatively non-threatening context (also see; Frankenweenie, ParaNorman), Hotel Transylvania is easy to watch because of the gags inherent in “a hotel for monsters”, but remains compelling because it has something not too saccharine and not too rebellious to say about the need for teenage independence. Adam Sandler turns in one of his least-annoying performances to date as the voice of the father-vampire, but it’s Genndy Tartakovsky’s direction that keeps things moving. As with nearly all contemporary animated features for kids, the plot of often interrupted by musical numbers and frantic action sequences. (The final sequence with a vampire flying alongside a jetliner shows a bit of invention.) For adults, there’s a bit of fun in seeing horror monsters re-used to comic effect, as well as the exploitation of traditional tropes from the monster’s point of view. Hotel Transylvania all amounts to an enjoyable family film, with a surprising amount of heart.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler, but he can be effective when used in the right context (ie; not left free to indulge his man-child persona) and Just Go With It comes closer than most attempts at producing a non-irritating Sandler comedy. It helps that the film uses some fairly convoluted plot mechanics to keep him from taking center-stage: the script involves a decent amount of romantic deceptions, mismatched identities, fortuitous meetings and tangled lies. Set against the pleasant backdrop of a Hawaiian resort, well, it could be worse. Sandler is restrained in a role that asks for more maturity from him than usual, while Jennifer Aniston gets a more interesting role than usual as his assistant-turned-fake-wife. Nicole Kidman gamely tries to keep up, but this kind of comedy really isn’t her thing, and it shows. Still, the plot circumvolutions are enough to keep our attention and while the end result doesn’t aspire, let alone attain, greatness, it’s good enough to fill up a lazy afternoon. As the title says, just go with it.