Ass or Auteur?
Before either was famous, Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler were roommates in Los Angeles, where they both worked the stand-up circuit and awaited their big breaks. Those breaks would come: Sandler has been one of the most bankable performers in Hollywood for the past decade, while screenwriter/director/producer Apatow is singularly regarded as the industry's comedic auteur du jour.
The latter is on a hot streak with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up; he also had a hand in producing Superbad, Walk Hard, the current Drillbit Taylor, and the forthcoming Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which opens April 18). He's been profiled in the New York Times Magazine. It's safe to say he gives, and gets, good press.
Meanwhile, Sandler doesn't do print interviews, even after receiving favorable notices. Nor did he court the media after showing undeniable acting chops in other people's films, namely Spanglish, Reign over Me, and Punch-Drunk Love. His own vehicles, despite their box office prowess, are resoundingly dismissed by critics as the work of a sophomoric dufus. (Think: Click, The Longest Yard, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, etc.) Conversely, Apatow is hailed as a genius for making films whose main characters are sophomoric dufuses.
I intend to change all of that. I intend to launch a critical re-evaluation of Sandler. I will be his Pauline Kael. I will argue that, beneath their frat-house veneer, his movies are as clever and heartfelt as Apatow's — and that he is the bigger influence on today's Hollywood comedies, including those made by his old roomie.
Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore came out in consecutive years, 1995 and 1996. Both were co-written by their star, were exactly 90 minutes long, featured no-name directors, received reviews ranging from lukewarm to crappy (Gilmore earned multiple Razzie nominations, including Worst Actor for Sandler), cost about $10 million to make, and more than tripled that figure at the box office.
Of the two early classics, Billy Madison is by far the more original. Its opening frames feature a drunken, sunburned Sandler fetching porn from the mailbox of his hotel-mogul daddy's mansion in a golf cart, only to encounter the hallucinogenic image of a man-size penguin. He chases the invisible penguin back to his front porch, where he's met by his father's business associates, whom he proceeds to offend by talking gibberish at dinner. (This follows a bubble-bath scene that tackles the timeless debate of whether shampoo is more essential than conditioner.)
Sandler and his supporting cast keep the absurdity afloat by dancing to Culture Club songs, randomly breaking into song, lighting bags of dog shit on fire, racing in potato sacks, staging an "academic Olympics," and participating in uncomfortable come-on scenes with over-the-top caricatures, most notably an aging, overweight black housekeeper named Juanita who wants to jump Billy's bones.
But then, in order to inherit his father's fortune, Billy must go back to school in an accelerated program to acquire the education he previously ignored. He gradually leaves the fart jokes behind and nurtures a mature romantic relationship with a comely primary-school teacher (Bridgette Wilson). By the last frame, Billy becomes an adult, much like Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Exhibit B: the golf odyssey Happy Gilmore. Sandler starts out as an immature hothead from the hockey arena forced to adapt to a sport he considers too highfalutin for a macho jock. Problem is, while his short game leaves a lot to be desired, he's a phenomenon off the tee, and the club pro (Carl Weathers) won't let him let it go. Motivated by the impending foreclosure auction of his beloved grandmother's home (where Happy grew up after his dad died in a freak hockey accident), he grudgingly joins the pro tour, there engaging in some very un-golflike tirades and punching out Mr. Price Is Right himself, Bob Barker.
Both Gilmore and Madison rely on smartass winks at more serious celluloid fare, ironic soundtracks that tend heavily toward Styx, hot love interests, and superbly rendered cameos from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Robert Smigel, Chris Farley, Kevin Nealon, and, most memorably, Ben Stiller in Gilmore as a hard-hearted nursing-home orderly with a handlebar mustache.
Like Seth Rogen's character in Knocked Up, Sandler's Happy matures to accept his responsibilities. His golfing prowess, like an unplanned pregnancy, is a gift of nature. (And let's not even start with the parallels to Big Daddy.) Sandler becomes, if not a grownup, a charming, evolving man-child on the path to adulthood. And behind him follow Apatow and company: Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, the brothers Farrelly and Wilson, and any number of Sandler's fellow Saturday Night Live alumni.
The June 6 release of You Don't Mess with the Zohan will mark the first cinematic collaboration between Sandler and Apatow, who shared in the scripting (Sandler also stars and produces). If it seems unusual for Apatow to take a subsidiary role to his former roomie, it shouldn't, for Sandler is the true auteur. Maybe some of Apatow's critical fairy dust will rub off on Sandler this time, at long last.
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