What Does it Mean to Direct an Adam Sandler Movie?

jackandjillThe Adam Sandler assembly line began production in 1995 with Billy Madison and has since churned out over 20 films under the Happy Madison Productions outfit starring Sandler in his well-versed comic persona of the well-meaning, flawed, likable schlub. Sandler’s brand is a veritable cottage industry, almost operating like a mini-studio, attaching him and his team of writers and producers to his projects and the smaller projects of his friends. Yet, despite the films orbiting around Sandler and having massive control over their image and tone, Sandler himself has never had a director credit on his own project or any other for that matter. That distinction has been credited to a revolving door of recurring directors throughout his career. Despite this, there is a consistency to the way Sandler’s films look and feel. It is almost as if Happy Madison operates like Sandler’s career – it’s just one continuous television program, and directors-for-hire are brought in to maintain consistency.

So then what does it mean to direct an Adam Sandler film? Most of the works in his filmography are categorized by some range of Sandler’s character in the center, surrounded by wackier characters, a chaotic environment, and an ingenue who has her heart won by Sandler’s schlubby goof. In this formula, often written and/or produced by Sandler himself, he needs to stand out in the center as the object around which the world of the film orbits. The judgment of every other character is seen through the worldview of Sandler’s character. In Happy Gilmore, despite his anger issues, Happy sticks it to the uptight, overly competitive golf world by bringing in some working-class flare. The uptight other golfers, particularly Shooter McGavin, come off toolish and stiff in comparison, making Happy’s flaws seem likable and appealing. This same formula of characterization holds true in Billy Madison, Big Daddy, The Waterboy, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, etc. The job of a Sandler director, therefore, is to manage the world around Sandler so Sandler’s comedy can stand out in contrast most clearly. The role of the Happy Madison director is to be a yes man.

Sandler’s most frequent collaborators have been Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grown Ups I and II, Just Go With It, and Jack and Jill) and Frank Coraci (The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Click, and Blended), who have churned out work reflecting the various stages of Sandler’s life with auteur-like consistency. It is possible to track his characters from Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison as he grows up into the characters in Anger Management and Mr. Deeds and now into the family life of this characters in Jack and Jill and Blended, though with constantly diminishing returns. It seems as if these filmmakers, who otherwise make network television and studio comedies for hire, pose no challenge to Sandler as an actor. It is an extension of the common youthful relationship in which a hammy kid with a camcorder hands the device to his friend and exclaims “film me!”

A common refrain is that when he has given himself over to a director, as he did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow’s Funny People, those directors (both of whom are immensely talented) found ways to mine the Sandler persona in previously unforeseen ways. They were able to expose him as more vulnerable and introspective, and they shined focus on his flaws rather than the flaws of those he found irritating. They were able to shift the perspective away from a Sandler-centric orbit and expose the actor and his “character” to the sharp, judgmental light of those around him. In a film centered around Sandler, his characters are forced to take on the weight of a protagonist; we see the world of the film through his eyes and his perspective. The shift in seeing him as an outsider or a misfit and forcing the viewer to consider his behavior as antisocial and vulnerable has without fail turned out better work.

Recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sandler appeared in two new films, Men, Women, and Children by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In the Air) and The Cobbler by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). Despite opening to negative reviews, I am excited to see both films because they are made by directors with a stylistic and authorial agenda beyond the Sandler industrial complex. As a boy who grew up in the ’90s, I thank Sandler for the many laughs that came from Happy Gilmore, one of my very first DVD purchases. But as a boy who is grown up in 2014, I wish an actor with as much talent, potential, and intrigue as Adam Sandler involved himself more often in the works of more complicated, ambitious, and risky directors willing to push his performance and capabilities rather than hire his yes men of yesteryear to drive the same bits firmly into the ground.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.

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