Adam Sandler’s new comedy-fantasy film “The Cobbler” joins a long list of box-office flops that have plagued the Jewish-American comedian’s career in recent years. It may not have been made with a particularly large budget (an estimated $10 million), but, nonetheless, it is increasingly hard to understand why the film industry continues to invest in his movies. (He recently signed an exclusive four-film deal with Netflix.)
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The disappointment over “The Cobbler” (the name “Sandler” in Hebrew and Yiddish means cobbler, of course) stems not only from its paltry box office return. It is also one of Sandler’s few films in which he actually tried to do something different on-screen – more than just another “Adam Sandler comedy.”
First screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and officially released last month, “The Cobbler” represents one of the few times in Sandler’s career in which he has chosen to work for a director with a certain pedigree – Thomas McCarthy, who has worked predominantly in independent cinema, his films including “The Station Agent” (2003) and “The Visitor” (2007). The plot has fantastical impersonation elements that links it to comedians of an earlier era, such as Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye. The result, though, is poor. The plot is weak and predictable, and the characters lacking originality and inspiration.
Most problematic of all, McCarthy’s film just doesn’t know what type of movie it wants to be: a cute children’s fable; a situation comedy or an existential parable. And Sandler gets hopelessly lost inside all three, looking even more burned-out than in his most recent films.
I have never understood the popularity and success of Sandler and his style of comedy. When you study a list of his successful movies, it’s hard to find even one that you want to watch again: “Billy Madison” (1995), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “The Waterboy” (1998) and “Big Daddy” (1998) are a few of the early highlights of his career – and it is hard to label those memorable.
“The Wedding Singer” (1998) was a sweet romantic comedy, whose success even led to a Broadway musical. His costar was Drew Barrymore, and something about their on-screen chemistry combined to create a movie with no little charm. Things didn’t work out quite so well in their next collaboration, “50 First Dates” (2004).
Only an Everyman
It was clear in these early films that Sandler was trying to follow in the footsteps of the great cinematic comedians, and to present us with a sort of Everyman, someone who has fallen into situations that test his humanity and resilience. That’s why his films often have a thick layer of sentimentality. But the great screen comedians (and I don’t even dare mention Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the same breath as Sandler) – from Kaye to Lewis, and from Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey – never played their Everyman as only an Everyman: there was always an eccentric dimension to the character, with an element of self-destruction that granted their characters a subversive tone.
A shadowy Adam Sandler character is hard to find. In most of his movies, he plays the decent guy – one who is sometimes a bit lazy, sometimes a little selfish – but who ultimately is just a good fellow. The problem was not only that this characterization tried too hard – that supposed modesty actually bordered on arrogance and obsequiousness – but that it turned monotonous and boring: Adam Sandler simply does not have the charisma or chops to carry this off. As the years passed, his weaknesses as a comedian have become more and more apparent, and the desire to watch him has faded.
Even when he chose to work with talented directors, such as James L. Brooks on “Spanglish” (2004) and Judd Apatow on “Funny People” (2009), the results were inferior to what we have come to expect from these filmmakers.
The only time Sandler dared go wild was as an ex-Mossad agent in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008), which was rather amusing in its own puerile way. But this was completely offset by the disgrace of “Jack and Jill” (2011), in which Sandler plays twins – a brother and sister – and marked a new low in vulgarity and sexism, even for his deteriorating career. Another low point, at least for fans of the cinema, was his attempt to follow in Gary Cooper’s illustrious footsteps in “Mr. Deeds” (2002), a remake of Frank Capra’s brilliant 1936 comedy “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Not only was the remake superfluous, as most versions of classic films are, but it handled the original without any understanding or charm.
The only real ray of light in Sandler’s career is his appearance in “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), the subtle yet strangely aggressive romantic comedy directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “There Will be Blood”). Anderson managed to successfully expose a side of Sandler that we never knew – neurotic, angry, desperate, which may be the alter ego of his Everyman, the one Sandler insists so hard on showing us in all his movies.
Anderson’s film, in which Sandler played a man whose emotional life was paralyzed by his treatment from his seven overbearing sisters, also serves to highlight the problematic dimension between the characters Sandler plays and the women in these characters’ lives. Still, it remains the one shining light in his career, which has become weaker and weaker, and less and less relevant, over the years – not just within the context of contemporary American comedy, but also in contemporary cinema in general. It may sound too cruel and blunt, but, as I see it, Adam Sandler is to comedy now what Steven Seagal (the one with the ponytail and expressionless features – remember him?) is to action films.