So where is everyone with Adam Sandler? As we head into the weekend and what feels like the zillionth vehicle, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, I'm at a complete loss as to whether to consider Sandler a legitimate comedic talent of his generation. It's been long enough since his departure from his mugging days on "Saturday Night Live," and he now has what we haughtily refer to as a "body of work" to start wondering where he belongs in the grand scheme of things. Will Zohan be the decider? I guess we'll literally have to see.
While the film is checking in at a woeful 35 percent on the old Tomato-meter on Rotten Tomatoes, further research reveals a more divided camp especially when you start reading the more smarty-pants reviewers. The decided majority opinion falls in with those like the Globe and Mail's Rick Groen, who writes:
Mess with The Zohan if you like, but be prepared for the consequences. This picture is to comedy what carpet bombing is to aerial warfare: The onslaught is so relentless that occasional direct hits on the funny bone are a statistical guarantee. As for any lingering wounds suffered by the more cerebral parts of the anatomy, chalk them up to collateral damage and consider it the price of laughter, Adam Sandler style.
Others seem to have almost the same observation, but are more forgiving in their ultimate assessment. Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, for example, qualifies it thusly: "You can tsk-tsk Sandlers penchant for dumb, crass humor all you want, but theres some meaning behind his madness. Is there nothing more human, more humbling, than the idea of smelly feet?" Or as the New York Times' A.O. Scott put it: Let me be blunt: You Dont Mess With the Zohan is the finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy I have ever seen. That it is the only one I have ever seen does not much detract from my judgment."
Still, the trailer, like many for Sandler vehicles, makes me want to run incredibly fast in the other direction:
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There are those (and I've tried to be among them), who think that Sandler was on the verge of an intriguing career turn when he started taking on more dramatic roles. While I didn't see Reign Over Me, I was tempted after reading Curt Holman's take on Sandler. (Curt's two-star rating, despite the presence of the great Don Cheadle, warded me off.)
Unlike many funnymen who try to play it straight, Sandler can achieve a stillness on camera, as opposed to a stiffness, and can tease out his silences until were intrigued by whats going on in his head. Perhaps he doesnt act much with his eyes, but in Reign Over Me, that suits his closed-off character. With his shaggy hair, stubbly chin and drawn features, Charlie looks a little like Bob Dylan.
Some don't buy Sander's quest for dramatic validity. There are those who believe that, in Punch-Drunk Love, for example, Sandler can harness the manic energy that often borders on rage for comedic effect into something dramatic and dark (but not darkly funny). However, Felicia Feaster didn't see a whole lot of acting growth in Punch-Drunk Love.
Like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, currently refashioning irritating comic personas into complex psychos and soulful Lonely Guys, Adam Sandlers performance in Punch-Drunk Love has been characterized as a more complicated riff on his usual idiot boys. But in truth, Sandler in Punch is just playing a more low-key version of the adorable goofuses hes made his living from, the kind of holy fools were supposed to love in spite of ourselves.
Felicia wasn't much kinder in her take on the James L. Brooks romantic comedy-drama, Spanglish (does Brooks make any other?), which seems like a golden opportunity for Sandler to kind of split the difference, to speak: use comedy and drama together. She wasn't buying it.
In grown-man mode and as a romantic lead Sandler requires an enormous suspension of belief. Sandlers range could be measured in inches. He offers two emotive buttons: shrieking like one of his patented teenage imbeciles to express passion and then mumbling into his collar like some shy puppy dog to convey sensitivity.
While I still think that Sandler can be funny, he remains too much of an under-achiever after all these years. That he's fastened himself on to the magic wand of Judd Apatow, who helped him out on the script with "SNL" mainsteay Robert Smigel, still makes me wonder. Maybe that's because I'm still stinging from the last time I saw Sandler, in a remake of one of my favorite movies, The Longest Yard. (Maybe it's because he butchered one of my favorite movies.) As Curt put it: "Sandlers detractors wont mind seeing him imprisoned and beaten for the first half-hour." (UPDATE: Sandler is scheduled to reunite with Apatow, his former roommate, on an as-yet-untitled project to be released next year.)
(Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures)