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).
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).
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.