Excited for Adam Sandler’s new movie, Grown Ups 2? You should be: he’s the biggest movie star in the English-speaking world. Lets just let that sink in for a moment. The former Saturday Night Live comedian who left television to play an idiot in Billy Madison then went on to make films like That’s My Boy, Jack & Jill, Click, The Waterboy and Little Nicky? The biggest movie star in the English-speaking world. Well, he is as far as box office clout goes: if we ignore a couple of his more recent films – Jack & Jill and That’s My Boy, both of which seemed designed to deliberately alienate all but his most hardcore fans – just about every movie he’s made in the 21st century has made over US$100 million at the box office. Even Will Smith can’t claim that. And unlike Will Smith – or Mark Wahlberg, the other must-have name when you’re in the blockbuster business – Sandler’s movies cost (relatively speaking) nothing to make.
Mind you, there’s a price you pay for making movies that cheap. Sandler makes most of his films in-house – his director (usually the workmanlike Dennis Dugan, who’s directed eight of Sandler’s films), his writers, his mates in the cast. He’s not a fan of putting himself out when it comes to making his films, so every single film he’s made since Don’t Mess With the Zohan in 2008 has been filmed in part or in full at a holiday resort or fancy mansion. Jack & Jill? They went on a cruise. Bedtime Stories? Luxury hotel. Just Go With It? Filmed in Hawaii. And he’s fond of playing rich guys with hot wives: outside of his romantic comedies with Drew Barrymore he’s paired himself off with Salma Hayek, Winona Ryder, Marisa Tomei, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Keri Russell, Jennifer Aniston, and Katie Holmes.
And yet, until recently, he hasn’t been a one-trick pony. While the movies he makes in-house with his buddies are usually the ones that bring in the big dollars, he’s been – again, until recently – stretching himself once every few years, beginning with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Anderson took Sandler’s then stock standard “angry jerk” character, gave him some backstory and a relationship with someone on his level, and charmed arthouse crowds around the world. It just didn’t make anywhere near as much money as his other movie of 2002, Mr Deeds, where he played a small town nice guy who struck it rich then went around teaching the snobs a lesson.
From there Sandler basically phased out his attempts to grow himself an action movie career (his final attempt was 2005’s forgettable prison football film The Longest Yard), giving that slot over to more highbrow dramas like 2004’s Spanglish, 2007’s Reign Over Me and 2009’s Funny People. They all showed there was more to Sandler than silly voices and acting flustered, but none of them turned a profit. Funny People, in which he teamed up with Judd Apatow, turned out to be the biggest flop both men had had in years. That’s probably because, despite the title, it wasn’t funny.
After Funny People Sandler seemed to lose interest in the movie genres that brought him this far. His final (to date) romantic comedy, Just Go With It, lacked charm and was nominated for five Golden Raspberry Awards, while 2010’s Grown Ups felt like a slapped together home movie in which he and his buddies (Chris Rock, David Spade, Kevin Walker) clowned around at a holiday resort. Jack & Jill (2011) saw Sandler playing his usual rich nice guy and his own annoying sister, while That’s My Boy (2012) had him as a washed-up former child celebrity monstering his own son. Unsurprisingly, audiences did not flock to those films.
And yet, his latest film, Grown Ups 2 – out in Australia in a few weeks – has seen audiences come a-running back into his lazy, disinterested embrace. By all reports it’s basically the same film as the first one; it also easily sailed past the US$100 million mark at the box office. Clearly audiences (in the US at least) like Sandler best when he plays an idealised version of one of them. As an on-screen average guy who just happens to have a hot wife and live in a mansion, the money rolls in.
Clearly he knows that the more offensive he gets with his comedy, the less money he makes. So those last few films where he played gurning, grating, offensive nutcases? They weren’t him losing the plot or trying to win back his fans by going over the top; that was his version of making art for art’s sake. The whiny, shouty, casually racist Jill in Jack & Jill? She’s not a cheap effort tossed off for the money – she’s the character he does because he’s got something to say. And if what he has to say is a lot of jokes about Mexicans making a run for the border? Well, uh, great art is often misunderstood in its own time…
Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part.