Film Pick of the Weekend: A Re-evaluation of Adam Sandler's Early Works

Early critical reports on You Don't Mess With the Zohan haven't looked too good, though audiences will have the final say in the film's commercial success. The preview left me uninspired, which is a shame because it was co-written by comedy-man-of-the-hour Judd Apatow and borderline genius Robert Smigel. Then again, I haven't been much of a fan of Adam Sandler since I was sixteen. Sandler's career trajectory has been fascinating though. His early appearances on Saturday Night Live rubbed many critics the wrong way, due to his frequently infantile persona and the lack of subtlety in his performances. Slowly though, in spite of what the intelligentsia had to say, Sandler became one of the show's breakout stars, attracting a younger audience than the series had enjoyed in years. Infantile, yes. Unsubtle in his comedic focus, yes. But so was his fan base. His early films were also almost universally despised by critics, but thanks again to his devoted followers, they continued to make money and Sandler began appearing in bigger, more ambitious projects. Unfortunately for me, something happened to his films post-Wedding Singer. They stopped making me laugh. I could chalk this up to my getting older, but frankly, I still find much to enjoy in his first two films, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. The comedy is far more abstract, odd (and in a way, charmingly gentle) in these works than in his more recent oeuvre. Sandler's humor seemed to increasingly move out of the pre-school and into the frat-house, and it was this loss of innocence that changed the humor. What is interesting to note is that the random, surreal, idolization of the man-child humor of his early works that critics found so distasteful has (with a little more focus and depth) become de rigeur in the modern adult comedy as typified by Apatow and his associates. Sandler's cinematic persona was just a new twist on an old comedic trope. The idiot with a heart of gold has been a sturdy cinematic character since the creation of the form, from Stan Laurel to Jerry Lewis to Steve Martin to Sandler to Will Ferrell and beyond. But it was Sandler's taste for the non sequitur that gave mainstream film comedy a shot in the arm (the frequent appearance, in Billy Madison, of a giant penguin that antagonizes Sandler for seemingly no reason, for example). Like many "artists" (though the snob in me cringes at the application of the word here), Sandler's innovations went initially unappreciated by the critical community at large. But when viewed retrospectively, one can see the seeds of much of what is currently beloved by comedy fans...and in that sense, his first two films can be appreciated as visionary. So, if You Don't Mess With the Zohan doesn't sound like it's worth your money, try watching Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore again with a fresh perspective and see if they don't charm a little more now than they did initially.


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