Adam Sandler Agonistes: the trials and hypocrisies of Judd Apatow's Funny People
For years and years, I haven't really understood Adam Sandler's appeal, so the reason for his fame is a source of great and terrible wonder to me. In his 2008 article "Here Comes Everybody Again," A.O. Scott mostly boils it down to Sandler's endearing lack of acting ability that helps him popularize male immaturity:
"Mr. Sandler’s special talent seemed to be that he didn’t really have one. His unabashed lack of wit or polish was the basis of some oddly memorable routines, like the one in which he dressed in a cape and wig and howled in tuneless pseudo-Italian as Opera Man. . . . Nor has Mr. Sandler been alone, over the past 15 years or so, in turning male infantile aggression into the basis of a lucrative and long-running movie career . . . "
Perhaps another reason for Sandler's success can be inferred from the opening scene of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, where (as I put it in my review of the film), "Sandler (Zohan) plays hacky sack, performs some impressive (?) computer-generated stunts, and then arranges to have the sack land in his rear, whereupon a swooning woman in a bikini applauds uproariously."
Sandler's rear end and the unrealistic swooning woman are keys to this particular comedic equation. His lewd jokes get their extra kick from the way he also foregrounds his characters' wild success with the opposite sex, thereby giving the various 14-37 year old guys in the audience the fantasy that they too can be grotesquely immature Don Juans, something that I doubt happens very often in real life, but it makes for great ego-stroking in the darkness of the cineplex. Take a thirtyish guy with arrested-development, some schlemiel who lives in a dream of still getting to be famous somehow as he plays video games all day in his parents' house--Sandler's movies supply the perfect wish-fulfilment world of getting everything for doing nothing. Here the guy can regress to a readymade make-believe womb where he can baby talk with his ilk, throw tantrums, and still somehow win the Darwinian sweepstakes as the studly male seedbearer.
But now that Sandler has entered his 40s, there are signs that perhaps he's regretting this devil's deal of a film career. Like Woody Allen's character Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, he's starting to look down on his comedic gift(?) and the alienating celebrity that comes with it. Somewhat like Bill Murray (although I hate to make that comparison), Sandler wants to try something else, something that may reflect the quandaries of fame, but his fan base's intractability won't allow it. He's locked in a kind of paradox: he would like to grow up, but the key to his success lies in the refusal to do so. You can see one sign of this maturing impulse in Click when Sandler attempted some Groundhog Day-esque pathos. As I wrote in a review at that time, "He may attempt King Lear, but he will still need enough flatulence to make it saleable."
So now, with the help of Judd Apatow, Sandler stars in the strangest movie of the summer, a film that frequently made my jaw drop as it mirrors Sandler's current celebrity and reflects back over his career. As George Simmons, Sandler has become disenchanted with the groupies, the stupid starring vehicles, and the many possessions (including a personal jet and the palatial waterfront estate where one can get lost), so he unrealistically hires a young nobody comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) as a personal assistant and a writer for his jokes. Apatow attempts to win sympathy for George by emphasizing the alienating effects of fame, the times when George has to stand and let people photograph him, his loneliness, lack of friends, etc., but it's very difficult to feel too bad for him, since he still enjoys rubbing the benefits of his success in Ira's face. Watching Sandler writhe around in his glass bubble, his playpen of success, made me feel both fascinated and queasy. In this time of economic hardship, are we supposed to feel sorry for him and his riches?
Perhaps in part to address this discrepancy, George contracts some mysterious leukemia-like cancer so he can soul-search and wonder what it all means, but the (spoiler alert) cancer disappears as easily as it arrives, becoming a conceit for several carpe diem moments more than anything else. Sandler persistently tries to perform in scenes that call for acting skills above his capability. In one, he tries to connect with long lost former flame Laura (Leslie Mann), but as they weep and carry on, George talks about how her hands always made his penis look small. Not only is his shtick not appropriate, he can't really handle the emotion. In his highly affirmative look at Funny People, Richard Brody writes:
"Sandler is one of the most unusual of today’s younger performers; he’s one of the few (and there are a few others) who has the solidity, the opacity of earlier generations of actors (indeed, of people), who, living in a more formal society, did not show their emotions readily or speak with instantly readable inflections."
Sandler's inflections are not instantly readable because he does not know how to act. Part of his appeal is predicated on the fact that he can't, but I agree with Brody that Apatow and the supporting cast lend Funny People a level of filmmaking craft and an emotional sensitivity unheard of in previous Sandler vehicles. Part of the weirdness of Sandler's work lies in the incongruity between his talentlessness and the many skillful people who help him with his movies. You keep watching these scenes where others act their heads off just to bump up against the flat affect of Sandler's line readings. One especially gets this feeling when Laura's Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) enters the picture late in a romantic triangle that seems tacked on. For his few scenes, Bana emotes circles around everyone else in the room, but in terms of the screenplay, his role seems tossed in to create some last second tension to the trumped up climax of the movie. At one point Clarke says of George, "He's really funny. Strange how his movies aren't funny." Just for acknowledging that point, one has to give Funny People some credit. I also liked it when Seth Rogen's character asked James Taylor "Don't you ever get tired of singing those songs over and over?" Taylor snaps back with "Don't you get tired of talking about your dick?"
These are important points of self-realization. Still, even with the film's insights into the psychology of stand-up performers, the a-list supporting players including Jonah Hill, Azziz Ansari, and Jason Schwartzman, Seth Rogen turning in one of his best performances, and Apatow's loving craft shaping every scene, all of this cannot entirely make up for the curious hollow sensation at the center of the movie. All of the mise en scene posters of W. C. Fields, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, John Belushi, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Bill Cosby, and Rodney Dangerfield cannot justify the presence of this pretender to the comedy throne and his agonies over his devil's deal, but it does make for an oddly thought-provoking summer movie.