“He didn’t make me laugh once,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum of Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, yet “TheMovieFan” on imdb.com finds him “outrageously funny.” Has there ever been a greater divide between an actor’s critical and popular reception? Years from now, when a freshly canonized Sandler receives his first Film Forum retro, apologetic cineastes might finally deign to ponder the appeal of the Sandler persona. Here’s a primer, in time for this week’s The Longest Yard.
Like Chaplin, Sandler’s trademark is perennial underachievement—albeit with a prickly temper. Schlubby, unathletic, and selfish, he redefines the lowest common denominator, making audiences laugh out of empathy and superiority. Nearly every Sandler film hinges on a competition with a money-grubbing asshole (golf pro Shooter McGavin of Happy Gilmore) for the love of a stern, sexy, matronly woman (grade-school teacher Veronica Vaughn of Billy Madison). Speaking of matrons, the Sandler persona also sports an Oedipus complex, with competition serving as the path to psychosexual development. In The Waterboy, playing football becomes a way for Sandler to overcome an unhealthy attachment to Mama; a relationship that could have been played as horror (see Carrie) comes off as Freudian farce.
This being Hollywood, Sandler’s characters prevail, but it’s not always a comfort—consider his chef in Spanglish (not the purest Sandler film), who responds to a four-star Times review with dazed bewilderment instead of elation. Sandler’s comic legacy is best described as poetry of the id for the temperamental, sexually unbalanced masses. Above all, he is a grand realist, constantly reminding us that success and healing are specious and ephemeral.