Everybody Pays the Fool
In 1995's Billy Madison, he won the hearts and minds of people whose lives revolve around keg parties. The following year, he wooed the Nickelodeon crowd with Happy Gilmore. Now his latest vehicle about a mentally challenged Cajun waterboy and the brain-damaged bayou folk who hate and then love him has raked in a phenomenal $39 million its opening weekend, more than double the opening gross of his last hit, The Wedding Singer. Adam Sandler (along with his former NYU buddies, writer Tim Herlihy and director Frank Coraci) seems to have perfected a disturbingly simple blockbuster formula based on his Saturday Night Liveskit gallery of dim-witted perennial adolescents.
Many people tend to approach Adam Sandler's success and the crisis in American education as two sides of the same issue. Gene Gregorits of Kim's Video speculates, somewhat forlornly, that Sandler's films "click with audiences because you don't need a vocabulary to watch them." One Waterboy fan comes closer to defining the attraction of Sandler's films: "They're easy." Easy like the neighborhood drunk, who'll never judge you. Easy on the mind, since each Sandler film rotates around the same, really-hard-to-miss premise: dumb, infantile guy must prove he can succeed at one thing (marrying the right girl, winning the game, getting through high school). Sandler's films are even easy on Sandler. Never straying outside Bruce Willis acting parameters that mandate no more than four facial expressions per film, Sandler's Waterboy performance is, as opposed to Jim Carrey's manic oeuvre, a triumph of minimalism: he's either stupefied Waterboy or enraged Waterboy.
Sandler films appeal to audiences for the same reason that Clinton is still in office: people love the "charmed loser," the screwup who somehow manages to avoid being eaten alive by a rapacious society. The Waterboy, however, adds a layer to an already winning strategy used by Sandler in previous incarnations. Programmed by his football coach to "imagine all the people that have been mean to you and attack" (the same instructions, incidentally, given to the last Republican Congress), Waterboy becomes a sacking machine who single-handedly leads his once losing team to victory. Relative to previous Sandler creations like Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy is actually a study in complexity: a human punching bag who, through creative visualization, goes postal, making him a combination Cinderella and Ted Kaczynski via L. Ron Hubbard. The object lesson of the film that the way to fend off aggression is to become an aggressor through the maintenance of a perpetual state of trauma is either really bad advice, social programming each one of us receives every day, or both. But it certainly assures big cathartic fun for all involved.
In this "Year of the Sleeper," the phenomenal success of films like Waterboy, There's Something About Mary, Rush Hour, and The Wedding Singer has Hollywood execs glimpsing the future, and it looks both lowbrow and (relatively) low budget. The new calculus would involve eschewing big-budget action risks like The Siege, bulldozed its opening weekend by Waterboy, in favor of low-rent comedies featuring emerging (read: cheaper) talent, geared to a teen audience. But all such talk of new versus old formulas tends to ignore Sandler's little-boy-lost appeal and the middling box office of other lowbrow vehicles see (or actually don't see) A Night at the Roxbury.
Clearly, Sandler has devised his own idiosyncratic method for building a fan base. Call it demographic-hopping: Sandler's first hits, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, along with his comedy CDs, locked in his core audience of boys, young men, and adolescents at heart (with all the overlap this implies); while Wedding Singer, a romantic comedy featuring a less cartoonish Sandler, lured in girls, young women, and the date-movie crowd, not to mention thirtysomething VH-1 devotees looking for their next nostalgia fix. Waterboy then convened all demos in the Sandler constituency the opening weekend audience was 40 percent female making it clear that Sandler's amiable idiot archetype has reached critical mass appeal: simply plug him in to any low-rent scenario and he's big box office.
Add to this the fact that the "films about idiots" genre championed by Sandler has an allure all its own. As one Sandler aficionado explained it, "There's not one moment in, say, Billy Madison where Sandler-as-Billy pretends to be smarter than the audience. Basically, he's too dumb to pose a threat in any way. That also makes him strangely desirable as a boyfriend, because he'd be slavishly devoted to you." Waterboy, which guarantees that you leave the theater feeling superior, may also be the first Sandler film that, quite improbably, elicits empathy for the character. At film's end, Waterboy rejects the manipulations of both his controlling mother and con-man deadbeat dad, taking off instead with criminally inclined girlfriend Fairuza Balk sort of like the outcome of recent elections in which Americans voted against what they perceived to be a manipulative, deadbeat Congress. Could it be that the "let me be me" mood of the country has taken root in films like Waterboy that promise to love you warts and all?
There's a Faustian quality, however, to Adam Sandler's success, to the tune of "Adam, you will continue to make hit movies, but you must play age-regressed mama's boys forever." Audiences expect comic actors to put in some "Mork time" before graduating to subtler comic roles, but it's starting to seem as if the 32-year-old Sandler like Billy Madison is doomed to wander the K-12 halls forever. As one film buff observed, "He almost reached puberty in Wedding Singer, but now he's back to being a boy again." With infantilism being as lucrative as it is right now, though, what incentive is there for Adam Sandler to move out of his sister's basement and get a real job?
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