It’s December 2003, and Mel Gibson is standing in front of a rabid audience after premiering an unfinished version of The Passion of the Christ. This was the same guy who chuckled his way through Lethal Weapon. The same actor who got his start insinuating that a post-Apocalyptic baddie should saw his own limb off. Yes, he’d made prestigious award-grabs like Braveheart, but this was something different.
Out of the darkness, someone asked where Gibson could go from here and, shielding his eyes symbolically from the spotlight, he said he couldn’t go back. He’d gotten the big house and the pool and the fame, but there was no way he could return to the types of movies he’d made before exploring the final hours of Joshua of Nazareth’s life. The movie was a plunge into the ocean, and the actor/director knew it.
If anything, Funny People was Adam Sandler’s Passion, but it didn’t come with the same sort of obvious shift. It was a quieter change that – innocently as it seemed – served to undermine the career Sandler had. Whereas Gibson (as clinically insane as he is) seemed to grasp what he’d done, Sandler has remained in the dark to his career’s detriment. Bluntly put, Funny People and his choices afterward ruined Adam Sandler‘s career.
The Gibson parallel is hopefully an illustrative one because a similar phenomenon was at work in both cases. Passion signaled a grand maturity in Gibson’s filmmaking the same way that Funny People signaled a vital sense of self-awareness for Sandler. He had made serious work before – from Punch-Drunk Love to Reign Over Me and Spanglish – but none of those films deliberately or directly mocked the actor for his previous comedic choices. More on that in a bit, but consider for a moment the trajectory of Sandler’s career. He was a shooting star on SNL and transitioned to epically silly movies like Billy Madison and Airheads. That resume was bolstered by funny-yet-heartfelt turns in flicks like The Wedding Singer, but his signature style was always delightfully deranged. Who else could make a hallucinated penguin or a mentally retarded football phenom work that well? His ideas were out there, but they were grounded just enough to make us root for the privileged idiot who had to re-do the first grade.
Pivoting to more wholly dramatic work seemed natural – especially in the wake of someone like Jim Carrey successfully shifting and because of the promise that the schmaltzy emotions of The Wedding Singer offered. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, and the severity of Punch-Drunk Love only surprised those who bought into the Hollywood narrative that “Funny Man Can Only Make Funny.” Of course Sandler had more depth.
However, there was no reason to fault him for making harmless comedy like Mr. Deeds or 50 First Dates after “going serious.” He was, in his own way, a strong romantic comedy lead (and from that point on, he seemed to fulfill his greatest childishness as a producer instead of as a star). Thus, when Reign Over Me – the depressive post-9/11 exploration of friendship and human connections – came out the same year as I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry – the movie where he fake gay-marries Kevin James – it was all par for the course. These were two sides of the Sandler coin that we’d come to expect. Wacky Zabadoobious and deadpan seriousness.
Here’s where things run off the rails. Judd Apatow has Sandler star in Funny People as George Simmons – a wildly famous comedian/movie star tired of the absurdly foolish movies that delivered the big house and the pool and the fame. Sandler was playing himself. With fictional posters for stuff like MerMan, Astro-Not and My Best Friend is a Robot stored in his garage, George was facing the end of his life (thanks to a rare, fatal illness) and recognizing the large emptiness of his wealth. This was the kind of rare opportunity for an actor to explore his own mortality by diving into a character that mirrored him, and he did it skillfully (no matter the shortcomings of the movie itself).
It was a Rubicon, Passion-like moment for Sandler because he was effectively telling audiences that he was in on the joke. The most prominent George Simmons film in Funny People is a gem called Re-Do where an overworked lawyer is transmuted by magic into the body of an infant. While Sandler had never done a body-switching movie, the style of the concept was directly culled from his work in the 2000s, most directly parodying Click (the movie where a family-ignoring Sandler is given a magic remote control and learns a valuable lesson about do-overs). By playing Simmons, Sandler was directly commenting on the hollow nature of a lot of his own work.