Adam Sandler’s production company is called Happy Madison because Sandler, the Saturday Night Live alum who improbably became an A-list movie star, knows how he succeeded where Joe Piscopo failed.
He did it with the crude comedic genius of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, his first two top-billing films. Against all Hollywood logic, they captivated the deep-pocketed young male fan base that will follow him almost anywhere now. We’re past the point of arguing whether Sandler has any talent; I’ll defend him to the death, and I’ll still lose. He fills theaters, and his first two films made it possible.
Both pictures still feel like home movies, with Sandler’s friends as co-stars and a script whipped up that afternoon by Tim Herlihy, Sandler’s college buddy who has a big hand in all his films. The humor was unpolished, unfocused and uneven—but it was completely true to one anarchistic, inspired tone, which is a miraculous achievement in an age of focus groups, constant reshoots and bottom-line filmmaking.
Herlihy and Sandler didn’t know how to hire a talented director, but they knew how to write 200 jokes with exactly the same intelligent sense of humor (yeah, I said it) while moving through a coherent story line. Sandler has been moving toward the middle of the road ever since, with results both good (The Wedding Singer) and bad (The Waterboy). Drunken penguin sightings and profane rantings at a golf ball—the kind of non sequitur gems that got Sandler far enough to sell out in the first place—just don’t show up as much.
Now he’s made Mr. Deeds, his first effort since the vomitous mass that was Little Nicky. It’s a nominal remake of Frank Capra’s 1936 aw-shucks dramedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which Gary Cooper was the hayseed. Sandler is a New Hampshire pizza parlor owner who gets $40 billion when his media-mogul uncle kicks the bucket. He heads to the big city, where a tabloid reporter babe named Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder) tries to shoplift his story, but ends up falling for a guy who doesn’t have “that ironic detachment” that the rest of us have.
It’s obvious Sandler sees where he went wrong last time. Mr. Deeds is a return to Happy Madison territory—another normal-guy-gets-lucky-break movie, with Sandler again playing himself. He’s also out for more of the bad-tempered physical comedy that made him a star. The best gag, involving Deeds’ frostbitten foot and his odd Spanish butler (John Turturro), has been played to death on the trailers, but there are some good ones you haven’t seen yet.
Sandler continues to stretch beyond Happy Madison—trouble is, there’s neither a consistency to the humor here, nor a bigger picture to consider. As directed by Little Nicky hack Steven Brill, the new version has none of the original’s Depression-era political self-importance, but it also has no clever substitute. Instead, we learn that faceless corporations who put people out of work are bad.
Herlihy’s script also is lazy and confused. It goes to great lengths to establish Deeds as the beloved, kindhearted Everyman of the original, yet it also requires him to beat the hell out of several people and spend a drunken night on the town with John McEnroe (?). Sandler’s core audience wants to see him pound people like he did in Happy Gilmore, but Sandler’s core audience’s dates want him to be a lovable sweetheart as he was in The Wedding Singer. It’s completely incongruous, yet nobody in the movie seems to notice.
Sandler must be as conflicted as his movie. He’s remarkably loyal to friends like Herlihy and Brill, even though they’ve royally botched their jobs yet again. He’s also interested in trying stuff like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which got rave reviews from the people at Cannes last month. The next few years should be very interesting for Sandler, who must decide how far he can stray from the comfort of Happy Madison before his young male audience stops following him.