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.
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.