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Adam Sandler's inexorable march toward truth

Last February at the Academy Awards, Adam Sandler said something funny. This is not a common occurrence — not because Sandler has devolved into our laziest movie star, but because he’s never been known for one-liners. Even people who love Adam Sandler movies don’t so much quote the dialogue as imitate how Sandler says the dialogue: The way he flutters between that high-pitched, somewhat effeminate, sweetly annoying little-boy voice of his, and the deeper, Eddie-Vedder-at-the-end-of-“Jeremy” bark that’s phase one of his signature temper tantrum, the all-fists-on-nut-sacks eruption that is typically, though not always lately, comedic in nature. Sandler has been doing this since Saturday Night Live. Back then, he worked relatively cheap. These days, he doesn’t get out of bed for less than $20 million. His range is limited, his rewards not so much.

Adam Sandler wasn’t doing a character at the Oscars; he was playing himself, the insanely successful comic icon whose early films were the big bang that created the modern-day man-child movement in big-screen comedies. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore were the proton and neutron that lead to Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Jason Segel crawling out of the primordial nothingness. (Judd Apatow is God in this scenario.) Sandler appeared via videotape, in a montage of celebrities attempting to sell the magic of the moviegoing experience to 40 million people enjoying the comfort and convenience of their living rooms. It was the very definition of a tough crowd, but Sandler had his A-material in tow. And he totally killed.

“I’m eventually trying to, one day, tell the truth,” Sandler said. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get there, but I’m slowly letting pieces of myself out there and then maybe by the time I’m 85, I’ll look back and say, ‘All right, that about sums it up.'”

The response from the Internet peanut gallery was swift and predictably incredulous. “Is Adam Sandler totally out of his mind, or what?” asked Grantland’s own Amos Barshad — a legitimate question, though in my mind not necessarily the right or most interesting question. The consensus about Sandler’s Oscar comment was that the “truth” of his films is undermined by how half-assed and downright shitty they usually are. But great art is often a lie, and bad art can be bad precisely because it’s a too-honest expression of who the artist really is. (See: Metallica’s St. Anger, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, and Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — preferably all at once, in an underground bunker set to explode at the sound of Matthew Perry pontificating.)

What I want to know is: How does Adam Sandler define “truth,” and what reality is he showing us in his films? Funny enough, I feel like I might already know the answer. For people (particularly men) around my age (I’m 34), the trajectory of Sandler’s career has been like a shadow of their own lives. Sandler’s years on SNL and his 1993 comedy album, They’re All Gonna Laugh at You, form a low, omnipresent hum playing underneath every junior high school memory. (If the words “Fatty McGee” fill you with nostalgia and dread, this means you.) In the mid-’90s, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore appeared so often at gatherings among teenagers that Sandler’s characters should’ve been issued high school diplomas and federal college loans.

After that, Sandler guided a generation of viewers into their first romantic relationships (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy), postcollegiate drift (Little Nicky), internships with respected mentors (Anger Management, Spanglish), steady if unexciting careers (The Longest Yard, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), love and marriage (50 First Dates, Click), and the monotony of family life (Grown Ups).

Sandler’s truth is that his onscreen persona has aged with his fans and experienced the same things at roughly the same time they’ve experienced it. Over the course of 20 years, Adam Sandler has gone from being a staple of sleepovers to dorm rooms to lousy apartments to the suburbs. And in that time he’s remained, essentially, the same guy: He’s “That asshole!,” the incorrigible dickwad with a heart of gold, the loudmouth buddy who’s progressively less fun to hang out with as you get older, the dude your wife forbids from crashing on the couch for “just a few days, I swear.”

In his latest, That’s My Boy, Sandler plays Andy Samberg’s incorrigible dickwad father. Sandler is not old enough for this to be realistic. (He’s only 12 years Samberg’s senior.) But truth does not matter to Sandler’s success: In real life you probably could have messed with the Zohan — that movie still grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. What truth does is give Adam Sandler’s films an auteur’s consistency. And in those terms, That’s My Boy is the “midlife crisis” movie.

I‘m tired, slightly buzzed, and determined to sit through what I’ve been told by trusted sources is the worst film of the last several years. In Jack & Jill, Sandler plays a wealthy director of television commercials who enjoys a happy home life with Katie Holmes and their two children. (If you replace “television commercials” with “Scientology propaganda,” he’s playing Tom Cruise.) Sandler also plays the director’s sister, who has a less happy life because she happens to look eerily like Adam Sandler in drag. I press play only after putting my pregnant wife to bed. Like Sandler’s Jack, I have a happy home life that I’d rather not have disturbed by Sandler’s Jill.

Ninety minutes later, the well-publicized awfulness of Jack & Jill — with its trundle of Razzie nominations and Troll 2–level Rotten Tomatoes score — seems a little oversold. Jack & Jill is a very bad movie. But is it that much worse than the normal Adam Sandler comedy? Did director Dennis Dugan (who also helmed Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, Chuck & Larry, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Grown Ups, and Just Go With It) somehow put in even less effort here? Is Jack & Jill a quarter-assed movie?

I’m not sure. But for film critics, Jack & Jill was like Chernobyl, and the toxicity seeped deep into radioactive reviews that openly called for Sandler to repent for his career sins, and even retire. In the midst of all this, Salon ran a story called “The Tragedy of Adam Sandler” that forwarded a popular theory that his “serious” films — namely, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love and 2009’s Funny People — are windows into the “real” Sandler, therefore casting his usual slapdash work in an even harsher light.

Upon its release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love was widely interpreted as a meta-commentary on Sandler’s violently angry and emotionally stunted screen persona. Though it was even more stylized than Sandler’s comedies, the psychosis of Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, and how it alienates and repulses nearly everyone around him, was seen as an “honest” depiction of how the Sandler persona would be perceived in real life. Apatow’s Funny People appeared to comment on Sandler’s career even more directly, with its depiction of a dying, Sandler-esque movie star who makes highly profitable movies that he knows deep down are soul-killing enterprises.

For many people, Funny People seemed, as Salon posited, like Sandler was “acknowledging the ridiculousness of his filmography and owning up to it.” If Sandler had any claims to “truth,” this certainly had to be it, right? But Adam Sandler is not his Funny People character, George Simmons. He is, by all accounts, a preternaturally happy family man with a lot of friends. There is no evidence that he, like Simmons, is regretful about his career choices; to the contrary, those choices have made Sandler richer than many of the world’s countries, and entertained millions of people in the process.

The real Adam Sandler doesn’t make movies about Adam Sandler; Anderson and Apatow are after, to quote David Lee Roth, a different kind of truth. Adam Sandler movies are about the people who watch them.

The most overlooked movie of Sandler’s career is also the strangest: In 2007’s Reign Over Me, he plays Charlie Fineman, a dentist who retreats into a world of video games and record collecting after his family is killed, only to be coaxed back to civilization by his former college roommate, played by Don Cheadle. Reign Over Me is a bit of an overlong clusterfuck — at 124 minutes, it goes on half an hour longer than most Sandler movies — that attempts far too many things in the space of a single film. It’s about 9/11, mental illness, sexual blackmail, the political infighting that occurs behind the scenes at Manhattan dentist offices, the plausibility of Liv Tyler playing the Judd Hirsch role from Ordinary People — and that’s just scratching the surface. But like Jack & Jill, Reign Over Me is a bad film that I didn’t hate as much as I thought I would. It’s an overly ambitious and thoroughly unsuccessful movie that, in my memory, has been re-edited into something tolerable. Relatable even.

In my mind, Reign Over Me is about a familiar dynamic that exists between married men and their single friends. Cheadle is a rich professional with a beautiful wife (played by Jada Pinkett Smith), children, and a stable, fulfilling life. He’s also very, very bored, which writer-director Mike Binder underlines by including a torturous scene where Pinkett Smith forces Cheadle to help her put together a puzzle. This is only slightly more subtle than Pinkett Smith forcibly removing Cheadle’s testicles and plopping them in a jar of formaldehyde, but it gets the point across: This guy is looking for a reason, any reason, to get out of the house. When he encounters Sandler, randomly, on the street, he makes a point to hang out with him, as much for his own benefit as Sandler’s.

Before long, they’re doing all kinds of fun dude stuff, like jamming to Springsteen’s The River in Sandler’s bachelor pad and attending all-night Mel Brooks film festivals. Sandler’s character in Reign Over Me is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he looks an awful lot like Sandler’s “That asshole!” character. (And, weirdly, Bob Dylan circa Oh Mercy.) All the Sandler hallmarks are there: The childish enthusiasms, the violent outbursts, the classic rock obsessions. As Pinkett Smith says at one point, Cheadle envies Sandler’s freedom, and looks for excuses to sneak off with an otherwise unlikable, mentally unbalanced, even dangerous individual.

The scene where Sandler and Cheadle attend the Mel Brooks festival includes a somewhat exaggerated version of an exchange I’ve had with single friends on numerous occasions. Sandler and Cheadle leave the theater early in the morning, and Cheadle calls to check in with his wife, who tells him his father has just died. Upon hearing the news, a clueless Sandler asks Cheadle if he wants to get some Chinese food, which of course he doesn’t. Cheadle needs to head home immediately. “Come on,” Sandler says, “don’t be such a pussy.”

I’ve been called a “pussy” for calling my wife from the bar, for leaving a little earlier than the rest of the gang, and for otherwise acting like the sort of normal, considerate adult male you don’t see in Adam Sandler movies. This is part and parcel of a specific kind of guy-on-guy interaction, where one guy doesn’t get it and the other guy has trace amounts of insecurity over his subjugated “man” identity. I was half-expecting Reign Over Me to pull a Fight Club–like twist, where Sandler’s character ends up being a projection of Cheadle’s fractured male psyche. That would’ve been the truest moment of Sandler’s whole career: If you’ve grown up with his movies, Adam Sandler embodies a part of you that, at some point, starts to seem sort of ugly and embarrassing.

Judging by the hot-tub hopping and wedding-dress humping that occurs in the trailer for That’s My Boy, Sandler is more of a projection than ever. Only now he’s the middle-aged guy in the room. For the kids who will one day equate Andy Samberg’s SNL years with the low, omnipresent hum soundtracking their teen years, Sandler might as well be Jack Nicholson, whose gray-bearded face classed up posters for Anger Management a decade ago. This is what Adam Sandler movies teach us now: People get old. Even him.

And yet, he doesn’t change. Not really, anyway. Every nine to 12 months, another Adam Sandler movie comes out, and the same scenario plays itself out: He’ll be a jerk again, he’ll relearn the same lessons about not being a jerk, and he’ll apply those don’t-be-a-jerk lessons in some small way by the movie’s end. (There will also be a blooper reel over the credits.)

It could go on like this for years, decades even: After the kids move out, after retirement, after the nursing home. And the people who once laughed at Adam Sandler movies, and did Adam Sandler voices with their knucklehead friends, and wished they could be like Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore — they will eventually ask themselves, “What in the hell was I thinking?” Then, finally, Adam Sandler can look back and say, “All right, that about sums it up.”

Filed Under: Adam Sandler, Celebrities

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden