Remember when Adam Sandler was a Teflon-coated moneymaker whose lowest-common-denominator comedies could shrug off a locust plague’s worth of bad reviews and still bank $100 million at the box office? Well, no longer. This Memorial Day weekend, Blended went over like a fart joke at a TED talk with a paltry $18 million haul.
You know Memorial Day weekend, right? One of the most important and profitable moviegoing weekends of the year, when studios slot their surest bets to reap the cash bounty that will keep them in the black? When we’ll line up to see almost anything and the rising tide of moviegoers should raise all the blockbuster boats? That was obviously Warner Bros.’ thinking when it counterprogrammed Blended against the X-Men and Godzilla. And you couldn’t blame the studio. It had worked so well in the past: When did an Adam Sandler fan ever care about bad reviews?
To quote the immortal Bob Dylan: The times they are a-changin’. Of course, the fact that the Blended reviews read like excerpts from Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate isn’t new; critics have used Sandler as a spleen-venting piñata since Billy Madison. (A.O. Scott of the New York Times even ended his review with a warning: “It will make your children stupid.”) But acolytes still quoted the famous shampoo vs. conditioner debate all across the country, and you can thank The Waterboy for introducing the medulla oblongata to a generation of moviegoers.
Even when the creative fatigue first started becoming painfully apparent around the time of Click, audiences still kept coming. (True, Click is an arbitrarily chosen and totally up-for-debate milestone; life’s too short to determine with scientific precision when Adam Sandler movies truly flamed out.) And although Funny People gave us all the sneaking suspicion that even Adam Sandler felt world-weary under the weight of his man-boy crown, the money hose didn’t stop. To give you an idea of how heavy that crown is, Box Office Mojo has pegged the total worldwide gross of Adam Sandler’s films, unadjusted for inflation, at $3.8 billion. And almost a third of that comes after our arbitrary Click point. (But yes, ticket price inflation invariably affects that calculation. Still: How many of us have cajoled $3.8 billion from our fellow man?)
But this time, it feels like the freight train is truly running out of steam. First off, Forbes just gave Sandler the dubious distinction of most overpaid actor for 2013. (And Blended isn’t going to help him get off that list anytime soon.) So that prompted me to do a little of my own Totally-100%–Nate Silver–rigorous regression analysis on the back of a pizza box after dinner last night. The results are stunning, and would be more so if I really knew anything about statistics.
Still, plotting Sandler’s box office against his budgets, you see that although the budgets have held at a fairly consistent $80 million, ever since Click it’s been a case of slowly shrinking profit margins that really went off a cliff after Grown Ups. The studios adjusted by first trimming Sandler’s budget to $70 million for That’s My Boy after Jack and Jill flopped, then drastically more so for Blended. And yet to no avail. (More arbitrary, Thomas Piketty–esque omissions that somehow just feel right: I didn’t include Funny People because that’s less big summer comedy than a prestige film; and Hotel Transylvania was left off because that’s an animated film and those things follow their own fifth-dimensional rules of profitability — it is, in fact, Sandler’s most profitable film ever.) You can look at the Grown Ups duology and see an exception to my pizza box analysis; or you can say that if you excluded those two films the trend would be even worse for Sandler. Remember, those are ensembles that also feature Chris Rock and Kevin James, major stars in their own right.
You can come up with whatever reasons you want: Sandler’s own fatigue with what he’s doing; the fact that his core audience has grown up whereas the plots of his films live in a state of arrested development; or iPads making Sandler movies prime candidates for skipping in theaters to wait for VOD. But coming on the heels of Will Smith’s After Earth debacle and Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger misadventure, it feels like the sheer force of a megastar’s charisma alone isn’t enough to beat us into movie submission. Here’s the interesting question: Why is that? As far as baseless speculation goes, I’ll just throw out there that maybe in the Internet age, with celebrity updates at the tips of our fingers, all big stars exist in a constant state of overexposure, inducing a celebrity lassitude in us; we just have too many options available to make seeing Tom Cruise run, jump, and flee compelling just because it’s Tom Cruise.
In Sandler’s case that means putting some effort — any effort at all — into his films, instead of just choosing projects based on where he wants to go for a subsidized vacation. At the very least, don’t let your contempt for the audience shine through so flagrantly. Here’s a modest goal: Aim to break through the 20 percent mark on Rotten Tomatoes — a feat Sandler hasn’t achieved since You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. (Again, I’m excluding Hotel Transylvania because animation hides the constant look of indifference as Sandler powers through his lines.) I mean, good god, at 3 percent Jack and Jill might as well be a parody cut scene from Funny People. Interestingly, Blended earned an A- CinemaScore, but that could be because only Sandler’s most forgiving fans went to go see it. So that $18 million earned on one of the most highly trafficked movie weekends of the year represents the upper ceiling on how far Sandler can go on fan love alone. With three big busts in a row, even the mighty Adam Sandler has fallen victim to the Twilight of the Movie Stars.
But don’t throw away your beloved Happy Gilmore commemorative jersey just yet. Sandler is teaming up again with Kevin James for Pixels (directed by Chris Columbus), which just might stray far enough from his persona-centered comedies to bring him another $100 million at the box office. More encouragingly, he’s just finished a Jason Reitman film and a Tom McCarthy indie. Nothing rehabilitates a star’s image like working with festival-darling filmmakers who force you to fly without your usual safety net of rhino sex jokes. Frankly, it’s about time. It’s been ages since Punch Drunk Love showed how Sandler’s signature frustrated everyman rage could be used to more artistic effect. Maybe now that he’s freed of the burdensome expectation of box office success, Sandler might finally take some real chances instead of foisting multimillion-dollar home movies on us. Because the monetary thud of Blended’s reception means we’ll probably be spared the annual Sandlerian comedy assault for a little while — until Chris Rock signs on for Grown Ups 3, that is.