The message would only have been clearer if he’d soberly looked into the camera and said, “Hey, fans. I want you to know that I’m violently aware of my own career and the middling directions its taken. This is the kind of stuff you make when you dive into family-friendly territory or want to branch out from the experimentation of youth. It’s no big deal, but yeah, I understand as well as you do that it’s ridiculous and obvious and stupid.”
Unfortunately, Sandler’s post-Funny People career looks like he didn’t get the message at all.
Grown Ups was terrible and simple enough, but Just Go With It was a poor attempt at returning to romantic comedy innocence that he didn’t have anymore. Then, Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy cemented the raised eyebrow and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot expression on fan’s faces. It should be elementary – you cannot follow up Funny People with Jack and Jill. You cannot follow up a movie where you viciously mock moronic premises with a moronically premised movie.
Either Sandler didn’t truly realize what he’d done in Funny People or he chose to ignore it completely. Either way, it was an error that earned him an historic sweep of the Razzies. Maybe the problem lies in Sandler thinking he was playing Judd Apatow instead of playing himself, but no matter the answer, the past few years have been a lot like watching your friend earn a PhD only to find him eating paste and defecating himself in the corner.
Now, you might say it was his more serious work that did it, but plenty of actors have been able to straddle the line – making serious and not-so-serious movies in tandem. Audiences often award versatility and come to expect it from those who show a spark of empathy in their comedic work. It’s in showing he was in on the joke that would have normally indicated he didn’t want to actively become the butt of it again.
The math isn’t all that strong here (because critics have almost never liked Sandler’s work), but where earlier zany work like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy is rated 45%, 59%, and 40% fresh respectively, his post-Funny People track record is even worse:
- Grown Ups – 10%
- Just Go With It – 19%
- Jack and Jill – 3%
- That’s My Boy – 24%
There’s at least a critical consensus that we’re all tired of Sandler, and the losing streak is divided by the hit-or-miss-streak by Funny People. What’s even more interesting is that more than a few reviewers made comments about Sandler having disdain for his audience with his latest. “It points you toward the irresistible conclusion that for all his success Sandler feels only contempt for his audience and tremendous insecurity about his own stature in the comedy universe,” said Andre O’Hehir in his piece titled “Adam Sandler Hates You.” He’s not alone, but this isn’t the kind of talk that comes with the average bad movie. Plenty of filmmakers make bad movies where critics don’t question their hatred of the audience. This is what happens when you tell the world that you’re in on the gag. When you continue the joke, the audience becomes the punch line.
Oddly enough, there’s another set of filmmakers to consider here: parodymongers Friedberg and Seltzer. They make terrible movies, but we don’t expect anything else from them, and that’s the key.
Imagine, if you can, a world where Friedberg and Seltzer announce they’re making an intimate dramedy about a washed-up Onion writer who tries to kill herself but, through a series of difficult conversations with family and friends, recognizes her own worth and comes back from the brink. Swallow hard and imagine that everyone (including you) loved the movie. It’s nuanced and heartfelt, genuinely sweet and tragic in equal measure. It’s on the short list for a few awards, but the real impact is that it’s a sign of strong, previously unknown talent from two former hacks.
Now imagine that they follow it up by announcing Fart Joke Movie.
The point is that you can never go back. Mel Gibson realized it. Adam Sandler must not have. Ultimately, the lesson here is that it’s one thing to make serious movies and another to aggressively mock a portion of your own career before diving headlong back into the mud pile.
Playing dumb only works if we’re not quite sure if you’re smart. Now that we know, don’t expect for us to fall for it any more.