Cinema Cynicism: The Ballad of Adam Sandler

Various corners of American cinema have grown progressively more cynical in the past decade, both in the content of the stories and the feel a viewer gets while watching. To specify, cynicism itself is being skeptical of human motives and life, essentially being a realist and not an idealist. Something that is not at all a bad thing, rather a very good quality to learn and grow throughout life.

But how does this realist approach affect the stories told in our movies? Are people more receptive to a “real” story? Do they bemoan a cheesy, heart warming ending because it’s not believable? Does a movie need to have a beating emotional heart? In modern cinema, it’s necessary for a story to have heart but times have changed since a few decades ago and if there isn’t an element of realism, most viewers won’t be engaged in the story. A strange yet prescient example of this is the filmography of Adam Sandler.

Before diving in: to preface, if a filmmaker’s intent is to present a cynical idea and translate that, then more power to ’em. Beautiful, thoughtful and exciting films are cynical. “Happy” films can be cynical, think of the sad tinge you feel from Toy Story 3 (or pretty much any of the Pixar films) and the reality of moving on from childhood, growing up and facing the world. There’s a joy and nostalgia present in the humor, the relationships and the characters but also there’s a colder edge of growing up that really makes the meaning of the story powerful and almost emphasizes the happy moments even more. It takes great skill to toe the fine line without falling into cheesy or depressing territory, but when the medium is met, the story is next tier.

This is the big issue. It’s a bummer when a film meant to be heartwarming gives the viewer a migraine because it’s trying to satisfy the clichéd formula it thinks the viewer wants (although some audiences don’t mind). Just the same, if the film throws heart to the wind, and opts to just beat the viewer down with depressing realism, many will be turned off (although some audiences don’t mind).

What a haircut…

This brings us to Adam Sandler. It might sound odd, but Mr. Sandler is at the heart of this duality in film. Adam is such a talent who’s found great, well deserved success making some truly wonderful movies along the way (his more recent films are of course up for debate). From his beginnings as a comedian, to performing on SNL, to producing and starring in some hysterical comedies throughout the past 20+ years, he’s truly found success (and it can be stated that the author is a fan). It should be clarified as well that this argument is not meant to hurt Adam or his work but more to express an impression from a viewer who has watched change over the course of the past 2 decades where cinema has grown colder and Mr. Sandler’s work is a prime representation of this (and perhaps why the recent fair has suffered critically).

With apologies to Bob Barker…

Part of this viewing seasonal disorder can be attributed (with contention) to the advent of digital cameras, and the ousting of film (the classic 35mm cuts that Adam’s 90s era movies were shot on). Looking at films like The Waterboy or Big Daddy, one can absolutely argue that they involve crude humor and may be formulaic. This is totally fair. However, fans can look back now and still get a kick out of those movies, the characters, the jokes, the ridiculous antics, the stupidity. Who could forget a fisticuffs with the prolific Bob Barker (Happy Gilmore) or a topless yet bashful Chris Farley (Billy Madison). Plain and simple it’s funny. And it’s done to get laughs and make the viewer feel good. But these 90s era movies had the benefit of being shot on film, which whether we’re aware of it or not, gives a story an element that’s truly cinematic. There’s a warmth to these stories, in part from the writing (even if some if it falls into tropesylvania) but the experience of watching the characters and interactions play out on film is something that can’t be replicated. Even if a story is hollow there’s some semblance of heart because of what the grainy flicker of film is able to do.

This is not to say digital cannot translate a feeling of warmth or enhance a story, it’s just harder to do. Whether we like it or not, digital is cold. It’s reality. It removes our tinted goggles and provides us with an unfiltered look at what’s in front of us. The willing suspension of disbelief is pushed to a certain ledge we can’t help but peak over. A cheesy interaction is magnified x10 fold on digital while something shot on film has the benefit of context. One might hear: “Oh, it’s an 80s movie.” “It’s so 90s.” Digital is a medium that breeds darker stories (or stories edged with realism), something absolutely worth exploring.

But this unfortunately means that the vintage warmth of a light Sandler comedy is trimmed to the root, exposing some of the stupidity and cheese without the fun and nostalgia. Sure, the jokes and writing of some of these new Happy Madison pictures are god-awful (look at Jack & Jill and The Ridiculous 6). And of course it’s not to say all of his pictures shot on film are great. But what happens if a Sandler movie has a chance at warmth, at capturing an air of stupid comedy? It may make you check your mind at the door but it’s alright because you want to escape for a little while. This is where a result like Grown Ups emerges. This film encompasses the crux of the realism vs. heart duality. (Partially the story presented but also the production of the film itself).

At its core, Grown Ups entails a man reuniting with a group of his old friends as they recount the days of their youth, how they’ve changed and what they’re relationships are like now. It’s an adult coming of age film that is primed for a sad tinge of change while also being pregnant with comedy.

Sandler reunites a full cast of his favorite cohorts and close friends (Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider, etc.), to portray older men reminiscing on the past. These are people who are very funny who through their prior movies/shows/stand up, have strong roots in audience’s childhoods/adolescences/adulthoods, over the past 30 years. However, a breeze blows behind the audience as they nudge their head out over the ledge…

“It doesn’t get worse than Grown Ups… Lazy, mean-spirited, incoherent, infantile, and above all, witless.” Via Stephen Holden’s review from the New York Times. A scathing point with some granules of truth to it. But perhaps more accurate is the observation made by Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle, “The film has some chuckles, if no belly-laughs; it has some warmth, if no great heat.” There’s potential for heart in the story, it’s even visible (vaguely) in what made it to the screen, but something was lost in translation.

While on the Howard Stern show, David Spade and Chris Rock discussed how Mr. Sandler was able to get movies made and they personally didn’t care what it was, they were just happy to be working together (their statement paraphrased here from said interview). A very warm thought and something that is rather concerning for the content of a film. The story isn’t paramount, the relationships of the actual actors are what’s at the forefront. Something very noble. However, with a lack of focus on story, and the lack of nostalgia goggles (i.e. film), the digital machination of Grown Ups serves up an iceberg of realism, where the audience itself asks “Did they even try?” “Was this just so they all could hang out and make millions?” Which they certainly did as evidenced by the box office returns ($271 million worldwide) and the inevitable sequel that followed.

So perhaps digital isn’t the only culprit of cinema cynicism. Perhaps it lies in the talent behind the camera: Adam Sandler himself. The creator and face of these stories has undergone his own change over the past 20 years that has absolutely impacted his work. He’s successful and has a family that he’s proud of, so this is not to say he’s suffering. But if one looks at his film roles as time has gone on, there’s the normal batch of comedy fair, but dashed throughout are films like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me plus the upcoming Meyerowitz Stories, where Sandler plays darker roles and does a very good job of conveying complex characters on the screen.

This might stem from artistic interest or as a means to escape the same comedic corner his films often lead him to, maybe both. Even in comedies like Click or Funny People there’s the tinge of realism, the former starting out comedic but slowly turning into a parable of a lonely man who’s forsaken his family; and the latter a comedy revolving around a man with a terminal illness. In fellow comedic actor Jim Carrey, a similar trend can be seen from the raucous comedies and brilliant humor he conveyed (think The Mask or Me, Myself and Irene) to the complex and troubled (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show), but that’s another article entirely.

Adam’s artistic choices have taken on the weight of realism, although not always well received some of these movies have challenged long time Happy Madison fans with a certain sadness through their stories and others through the sadness of the production. It may be the inevitable path of comedians/comedic actors to want to change but as evidenced by Mr. Sandler’s progression, there isn’t a way to go back to the simple (some might say ignorant) joy of a 90s film. For Adam himself, audiences aren’t able to see him in the same light: the light of a pure comedic character now tinged with more serious roles or quite literally the un-flickering digital glow we now see on screen. It’s rather sad, but truly hits home the semblance of change throughout human life through a man’s work in the movies.

And hey, he’s Adam Sandler, he’ll do more movies in the future whether we like them or not, so the exploration continues on…

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Edited by Munjeera.

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  1. No prizes are going to be awarded to Sandler for his acting or to these films for shedding light on the human condition, but I’ve got many happy teenage memories of watching the 90s Sandler movies, and giggling at the silly absurdity of them with my brothers, while enjoying a beverage and some cake.

    For those memories (and his reputation as “the nicest man in Hollywood”) I see Sandler as one of the good guys and I’ll always have plenty of affection for him.

  2. Spanglish is great and explains in 90 minutes the complexities of the current US immigration policy. Who knew Sandler was left wing?

  3. Kip Laney

    For what it’s worth… My top 3.

    1) Punch Drunk Love
    2) Wedding Singer
    3) Funny People

    With an honourable yet guilty mention for Mr Deeds (if only for John Turtorro’s sneaky butler).

  4. Mitchel

    The popularity of Adam Sandler’s movies is the clearest scientific explanation for why Trump won the presidency.

    [that said, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love was a pretty good film, one reason being that Sandler was defanged of his Sandlerism in it. But more importantly because Emily Watson was in it.]

  5. SheBorn

    Punch Drunk Love is the only one I have watched and that was due to Paul Thomas Anderson not Adam sandler. It was a good film and I thought adam sandler came across like a modern day Charlie Chaplin which was good.

  6. He’s only made one watchable film ~ The Wedding Singer.

    • Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison are both terrific – it’s a scandal the last one’s rated so much lower than the dire 50 First Dates.

  7. Burnett

    A good rule of thumb is to avoid all of his movies at all costs.

    • Well if you done that you’d certainly avoid watching lots of shite films, but you’d also miss out a few pretty good ones as well.

      Judge everything on its own merits is probably a better rule.

    • Except “Uncut Gems.”

  8. It’s annoying that Sandler is capable of making really enjoyable films but so often chooses to stay in his comfort zone with his mates rather than really push himself.

  9. He was surprisingly decent in a semi-serious role in Funny People and – unlike most, apparently – I enjoyed the absurdity of Little Nicky. The others should be encased in lead and buried deep underground for the rest of Time. Put him down there with them.

  10. 50 first dates….the film where Sandler takes advantage of a women with amnesia.

  11. Realism and cynicism are two completely distinct philosophies – each is defined in rather considerable detail. I can’t tell if I am supposed to take this as arguing that modern films are more realistic or more cynical.

  12. The man makes a lot of bum slurry, I’ll be the first to admit that, but it’s not all bad. Though the idea of sitting through Grown-Ups (I think it’s that little blonde guy that really riles me) would have me reaching for a loaded gun, I could quite happily stick 50 First Dates on. These ones are okay to me:

    – Mr Deeds
    – Big Daddy
    – 50 First Dates
    – Happy Gilmore

    If he’d just made those films (and if he could have trimmed 10-15 mins of cack out of each of those, then all the better) I think we’d be talking about a very good actor.

  13. The Wedding Singer is fucking brilliant – tightly written, full of sassy one-liners, and acutely funny character portraits. It also has a huge heart and excellent soundtrack.

  14. I was blown away by Punch Drunk Love and, after watching it a few times, still can’t understand why Sandler makes so much rubbish, when he could turn out such a good performance – admittedly – supported by en excellent cast. Money perhaps?

  15. Punch Drunk Love is worth your time. It’s great; a sweet love story really. Don’t be put off by Sandler’s presence, he’s perfectly cast.

  16. Babcock

    I avoid Adam Sandler movies like the plague, but I really enjoyed Punch Drunk Love when it came out for its utter weirdness.

  17. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    An unusual choice of focus, but an interesting one. I would be interested to know whether the aspects of cinema that you have identified (on film, realism, actor/director) can be applied further than a single actor. It would be interesting to know how his own personal journey informed his filmmaking choices also. A great read.

  18. Always interesting how in a lot of his earlier films, he had large groups of people cheering him on, wishing him to do well. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Waterboy…..

  19. shaprer

    I enjoyed Pixels. I’m surprisingly easy to please.

  20. The Meyerowitz Stories is good Adam Sandler film.

  21. The Meyerowitz Stories is a good Adam Sandler film.

  22. Munjeera

    Wedding Singer girl.

  23. TheBrunette77

    This is very well written. I think like any artist there are works Sandler can do well; ranging from comedic romance (The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates), the immature but no less entertaining (Little Nicky, Billy Madison), the potentially offensive (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, The Ridiculous Six) and the dramatic with elements of seriousness (Reign Over Me, Punch Drunk Love) to the unpopular, for lack of a better word, bombs (Jack and Jill and Pixels). His multiple duality is perhaps commendable, as is his perseverance but who can say if he will reclaim his, to some, acclaimed status or not?

  24. Stephanie M.

    I’m not really a Sandler fan; I find his movies crude and at times disrespectful to certain persons, groups, or situations. But I do appreciate your discussion and analysis of heartwarming vs. cheesy and how Sandler fits into that. I definitely think a good movie must have a beating heart, but it also needs an edge. At least some of it needs to feel “adult,” even if the film is billed for children. Why? Because heart + edge makes a movie and the actors in it relatable. Heart + edge, or heart + cynicism, entertains without moving too far from real life. Too much cynicism and you have a downer; too much heart and you have a cheese-fest.

  25. Sandler is actually a much more intelligent and quality actor than people give him credit for, it’s just that he has a massive amount of tripe in his acting resume. Like you mentioned Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me actually showcase an intricate and multi-layered performance by Sandler, it’s just unfortunate that his more recent comedy outings have overshadowed these performances.

  26. Say what you want about Adam Sandler, but ‘Click’ is an amazing movie and always makes me cry! Personally, I think his sense of humour and comedic timing is best suited to a younger audience. If he let go of the raunchy comedy films and focused on the viewers he’s suited to, I think it would be best for everyone.

  27. Very interesting about the film v digital changing the “warmth” on the screen. I never thought the reason the era of films Sandler has made felt so difference was because of the medium they were shot on, but now I see very much how that could affect it. The complexity of his career is so interesting, and was on such a good path in the early-mid 00’s (Punch-Drunk Love, Rain Over Me) even Click, as you said, had touches of complex and real characters that really brought out the talent Sandler has as an actor. The Meyerowitz film shows a similiar Sandler. Another great example is Judd Apatow’s best film, in my opinion, Funny People. It seems Sandler may be portraying his own self in this film, and that’s why I love it.

  28. I still enjoy Adam Sandler’s work! I think he’s hilarious.

  29. It doesn’t take a genius to find that perfect blend of humor and drama in a film. The blend is obvious in such Sandler films as “50 First Dates,” “Mr. Deeds,” and “Big Daddy.” He also has a few other gems that are heavily saturated with raunchy or ridiculous humor, but bring about an emotional gut punch at the perfect moment to give the film some definite heart. Consider if you will “Click” and “Eight Crazy Nights.”

  30. In one of my classes, my teacher mentioned Sandler is like the ‘clown’, encompassing the comedic and the dark. I genuinely think Sandler is a talented man, and he has made some movies which does have heart and thought. Also I do agree that we have gotten more cynical as a society and this may have even made us miss the ‘heart’ in a lot of things. With regard to Sandler movies, I think it’s good to work together with the people you love, but it’s also true art that should be rewarded and out there for the world to see. I just think it’s a pity people spend millions of dollars producing thoughtless movies when there are so many stories out there that are waiting to be seen.

  31. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    Happy Gilmore, I wanted a sequel.

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