“Being rich and powerful isn’t a bad thing. The problem is what can happen when you decide that you would do absolutely anything to become rich and powerful”
Adam Sandler in Mr. Deeds (2002)
When I was fourteen and my parents weren’t looking, I submitted an article to an entertainment news website announcing my ‘100 Favourite Films’ (it’s still available to read) and those naive chumps actually published it. I was decimated in the comments section by adult cinephiles, justifiably unaware that a literal child made the list, horrified that I had ranked Grown Ups, Mr. Deeds and Just Go With It higher than The Godfather or Pulp Fiction. My defence was simple: I liked Adam Sandler’s comedies. I had seen most of them only once, laughed a lot, and moved on. Equating this experience of simpleton pleasure with actual cinematic greatness is a flaw of judgement I would grow out of of, but it remains undeniable that Sandler’s lazily produced but affectionately conceived broad comedies hit a certain sweet-spot with global audiences that, in a deeply depressing moment like the current pandemic, have served at least for myself as an easily-digestible dose of the silly and the simple.
Where I start to appreciate Sandler’s “bad” films (we’re talking about the projects critics will reference disparagingly when heaping praise onto Uncut Gems and Punch Drunk Love) on a deeper level, perhaps one he and his Happy Madison crew don’t even realise, is in the grey area he establishes between being an icon of the uneducated working class everyman, and various fictional versions of his true self, a millionaire industrialist ever in denial about his family’s privilege in contrast to his own sticks-and-stones upbringing. In a number of his comedies, this area is navigated cautiously and with characteristically manic outbursts of rage, with the men Sandler plays finding compromise between Hollywood affluence and ‘genuine’ American life.
Sandler loves to preface the indulgence of his adult lifestyle with quaint prologues that evoke 80s nostalgia so vapid it may as well be narrated by Michael J Fox. Grown Ups opens with a kids’ basketball game that sets ups the broad types the movie will be dealing with: Sandler’s character Lenny is a confident natural leader; a young boy that looks like Chris Rock is making jokes about being the only black kids around; a young David Spade is making eyes at girls in the crowd; etc. It’s like Wet Hot American Summer with a layer of self-awareness removed. The kids win the game. Their coach toasts their honour. These are the triumphs of small-town life, and in strong Stand By Me fashion, these men will never be this happy again. Jack and Jill shows us that, as children, the titular twins were close allies before their lives diverged. That’s My Boy takes the Young Sandler prologue a step further as the character is shown to have impregnated his teacher while underage, which leads to his fathering of Andy Samberg in the present day portion.
In almost all of these cases it would appear Sandler is offering his characters initially as children to win our sympathies before it’s revealed how, intentionally or not, despicable they are as grown-ups. It’s harder to hate a sweet Jewish boy than a wealthy middle-aged man who behaves like a brat (especially true of Billy Madison where he literally attends school with children while making sexual asides to his teacher). In Mr. Deeds, the Sandler we meet to begin with is the Sandler we get for the entire film: naive, pure of heart, eyes wide open to the truths of corruption and decency in America. Deeds, a New Hampshire pizzeria owner, and a modern twist on the Gary Cooper protagonist of Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, is Sandler in Tom Hanks mode, and is probably his kindest character, reserving his anger for those who embody the evils of corporate media. Mr. Deeds is his most political effort; overtly anti-New York media, it sees Peter Gallagher challenge Deeds as a cartoonishly mustachioed company executive who wouldn’t seem out of place in an Aunt Fatso picture on 30 Rock. Deeds wants a media that reports honestly, and a world that doesn’t sell out its values for profit.
When we catch up with Lenny in Grown Ups, he’s a hotshot talent agent whose kids text the nanny their demands and only drink bottled Voss Water. Sandler is deeply ashamed of their refusal to embrace the simple values of his own youth, and the film shifts blame for this onto his wife Salma Hayek, introduced to us as a demonically career-driven woman of the fashion world but later revealed to have a ‘softer side’ (translation: gives in and just does what her husband wants). Kevin James jokes about waiting for his wife to fall asleep before having sex with her, and Chris Rock mopes that he’s been emasculated by having to cook dinner for his family. Grown Ups, if you couldn’t tell, has a deeply disturbing attitude to modern marriage. Perhaps the healthiest dynamic in the cast is between Rob Schneider and his 76-year old GrandMILF, a sexually liberated former hippie. Unlike the other men, their relationship seems relatively happy, and their sex consensual and positive. The film therefore depicts them as the height of disgusting and ridiculous.
Lenny spends the bulk of the film trying to encourage his sons to put down their phones and play in the woods, and this yields good results. Kevin James, meanwhile, has to come around to confessing his financial difficulties to his childhood friends, having been pretending to be as wealthy as Lenny throughout. Struggling in the wake of the recession is nothing to be ashamed of, Grown Ups tells us, but it’s still cooler to be rich and married to Salma Hayek. Lenny’s family may throw off the shackles of their Beverly Hills privilege for the duration of the film but by the start of Grown Ups 2 they’re back in their big house enjoying the niceties of having an immigrant servant on call once again.
Mr. Deeds spends a few days being a billionaire before entrusting, through a loophole of inheritance, his fortune to John Turturro’s ‘sneaky sneaky’ butler Emilio, and returning to Mandrake Falls to live happily with undercover journalist-turned-lover Winona Ryder. Deeds has no business being rich; his joy comes from small acts of kindness. Click’s Michael Newman endures a techno-George Bailey experience of having his life speed past his eyes thanks to a magic remote control, and returns more than satisfied to the family life he had neglected for his architectural job. Jack and Jill’s two titular characters, both played by Sandler, are reunited when Jack realises that family is more important than securing Al Pacino for your coffee commercial.
Even in James L Brooks’ Spanglish, a sickly sanctimonious effort one imagines Sandler himself can’t stomach to revisit, there’s an acknowledgement that with white wealthy privilege comes great responsibility. Sandler’s dalliances in being a multi-millionaire (he’s estimated to be worth around half a billion dollars in reality) come hand in hand with a degree of guilt that his streetwise Jewish New Yorker origins have been lost, and in the films where his character is most affluent, there is often a visible effort to highlight that he isn’t just another WASPy success story. There are contradictions in his approach to wealth; to power; to the need to remain in touch with family and community (if you dive into his films that aren’t self-produced, like Uncut Gems, this conversation becomes tenfold more complicated), ones that are exacerbated by his apparent Republican Party donation history; presumably the result of a tax phobia as much as any cultural loyalties. For what Sandler shares with the bulk of rich white people is an inherent hypocrisy but one that typically works to distract people: you can make as many jokes as you want about having an immigrant nanny in your home, but the immigrant nanny is still there, and she’s still being paid less than a living wage.
From both analysing box office stats and assessing the films themselves, it’s clear that the audience for Sandler’s comedies is a split between fourteen year old boys and men who were fourteen when Sandler first started out. For every Sandy Wexler for the older crowd (“remember when porno movies came on VHS and Burt Reynolds was the most famous man in America?”) there’s a disaster like Pixels aimed at the zoomers who — if the way Sandler’s characters talk to their kids is to be trusted — the man has little respect for. Pixels, it need be said, is most likely Sandler’s worst film and the last expensive nail in the coffin of his theatrical career before a well-timed pivot to Netflix originals boosted his ability to churn out B-tier comedies twice a year to a micro-targeted audience.
Before the pivot, however, the international performance of his films was noteworthy, especially given their borderline Trumpian pureness of Americanism (the first Grown Ups features a literal raising of the US flag). Jack and Jill, thanks in part to both Eugenio Derbez and the universality of crossdressing as a comedic endeavour, took half its gross outside the US; $11m from Brazil alone. The Netflix distribution model undoubtedly enhances the practicality of dumping Sandler’s material onto a worldwide audience, passively seeking entertainment in their homes, with the convenience of dubbing and subtitling for Sandler’s broad gags.
As for whether the more specific political overtones of Mr. Deeds and Spanglish, or the puerility of Grown Ups and That’s My Boy’s endless sex and toilet jokes, will truly translate in the pantheon of Sandler’s comedies, and in their legacy as contemporary classics in decades of streaming going forward, only time will tell.