Friday, April 21, 2017

Leave 'Em Laughing

When Don Rickles died earlier this month and I read some of the tributes to him, kept brief by the limitations that social media imposes on users, I thought for a moment how awful it must've been to be him. His schtick was insulting people, about pushing his insults as far beyond the pale as possible so that they seemed grossly, blatantly unfair. But what if Rickles simply wanted to tell someone - anyone - an uncomfortable truth? Everyone would laugh. It reminded me of a 1971 Rod Serling Night Gallery episode in which a comic (played by Godfrey Cambridge) finds a genie who will grant his wish that people will laugh at his bad jokes. The unfortunate result for the comic is that people laugh at everything he says, even when he is having a heart attack onstage and asks for a doctor.(1)

Adam Sandler has a schtick that has made him unaccountably rich and famous. Since 1995, the former comic and SNL cast member Adam Sandler has made a string of film comedies that have been consistently popular with moviegoers and nearly unanimously unpopular with movie critics. While some observers find in this phenomenon an illustration of some sort of general rule that popular success and critical acclaim exist in opposition to each other, the facts tell us it is more complicated than this simplistic model implies. There is breathtaking proof that Sandler is critic-proof on his Wikipedia page, where you can read this: "In 2015, Sandler starred in the Western comedy film The Ridiculous 6, distributed by Netflix. Despite being universally panned by critics, it was announced on January 6, 2016, by Netflix that the film had been viewed more times in 30 days than any other movie in Netflix history." Sandler has gone on record that he doesn't make his movies for the critics or for the fans. He uses them, he says, as a pretext to have good times with his friends.

In virtually every one of his comedies, except for the ones in which he's trying out a funny voice (The Waterboy, Little Nicky), Sandler plays the same schlemiel. This "character" - if you can call it that - is nothing like the nebbish persona that Woody Allen cultivated for fifty years. Allen had the advantage of being a genuine filmmaker, not to mention being genuinely funny. Sandler's typical role is more average, less identifiably Jewish, and brazenly stupid.(2)

Sandler's movies elicit plenty of laughs, but there is a problem at the heart of his comedy that makes it very hard for a discerning viewer to laugh. The issue, I think, that most critics take with Sandler's movies is more complex than it appears to be. It isn't that Sandler resorts to low humor - even though he does. Low humor has a long and rich tradition in American comedy. There is something democratic about its ability to show us that we are all equals - in our weaknesses, our foibles and petty obsessions. Low humor appeals to our common humanity. So what if it's so often sexual or scatological?

Some movie comedians became famous for the extreme lengths to which they would go for a laugh. Harold Lloyd was famous for the physical hazards he sometimes staged, like scaling the outside of a tall building in the aptly-titled Safety Last (1923). In Our Hospitality (also 1923), Buster Keaton, who got his name from a fall he experienced when he was a baby,(3) appears to risk his neck in several scenes. Some time later, behind-the-scenes photos revealed that the stunts in both films weren't quite as hazardous as they appear to be.

But there are famous examples of humor that is so overwrought that it dwarfs our impulse to laugh at it. Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) brought together in one movie some of the funniest comics alive. But the gags they were frequently called on to perform (like the climactic scene in which several of them dangle precariously from a teetering rain gutter) were so elaborately staged and so expensive that they made audiences wonder if they were worth the few laughs that they were intended to provoke. Steven Spielberg went even further in 1941 (1979), his expensive foray into blockbuster comedy. It was an embarrassing flop for the fledgling director, who has wisely avoided making comedies ever since.

Sandler, however, has erred in the opposite direction. He has been called "lazy" by several critics because he obviously doesn't bother to even try. He puts forth as little effort as possible, expecting audiences to laugh at throwaway scenes and lines dropped like crumbs from a stale sandwich. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David successfully managed to draw comedy from thin air in their hit series Seinfeld. David continues in the same vein for HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. But what makes Seinfeld and David funny is their success with the extreme risks they take with the apparent thinness of their material. Sandler risks nothing - not even his reputation, which suffers with each successive movie. Three of his films have been ranked on the movie critic website Rotten Tomatoes (to which I am an unsolicited contributor) as among the worst ever made. More than a decade ago I was convinced that Sandler was determined to make the most abysmal movie comedy of all time, as each new release plumbed ever greater depths.(4) I am now convinced that he succeeded, but that he has taken up residence there.

In a discussion of Akira Kurosawa's last film Madadayo (1993), Donald Richie remarked that its failure was due to sentimentality, which he defined as "unearned emotion." In his early masterpiece, Ikiru (1952), Kurosawa indulged in the extremely emotional situation of its protagonist dying of stomach cancer and his search for one last meaningful act in his meaningless life as a paper-pushing bureaucrat. But Ikiru is an overpowering emotional experience, its emotion is terrifically earned, because of Kurosawa's unflinching determination to be true to his subject. Truth (redeemed by great beauty) saves Ikiru from sentimentality.

The absolute worst that can be said of a comedy is that it is unfunny. The laughs that Sandler's movies elicit are unearned. But he is not without a few diehard supporters. Some of them have mistakenly called Sandler a talented actor, which doesn't do anyone a favor, least of all Sandler himself. While I thought he was effective opposite the wonderful Tea Leoni in Richard A. Brooks's Spanglish (2004), I wondered what a genuine actor could've done with the role. His performances in the highly touted Punch Drunk Love (2002) and in Reign Over Me (2007) are impossible to properly assess since in both films Sandler is playing emotionally disturbed characters, which, as any good actor can tell you, is easy. In Funny People he played himself, which must've been tough for him.

A recent Guardian article foolishly attempted to parse Sandler's movies and categorize them as "The stone cold classics" (among which is the incredibly cruel 50 First Dates), "The surprisingly solid," "The bad but tolerable," and "The unwatchables."(5) There simply cannot be a best or worst Adam Sandler movie. There is too little space between the best and the worst.

When Jonathan Winters died four long years ago, I wrote that "He likened the entertainment industry to the Olympics, with actors standing on a platform to be handed their gold, silver or bronze medals. Except that 'I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They're playing the national anthem and I'm fondling a platinum medallion.' Earlier in the same blog post I singled out Adam Sandler as a comic who is the opposite of Winters. "With every new release Sandler proves that, instead of regarding film comedy as an Olympic event in which the bar is always raised, he thinks he's doing the limbo, and is always lowering the bar."

(1) Wikipedia: 'Cambridge gave an acclaimed performance alongside Tom Bosley in the episode "Make Me Laugh" of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, a story about a failed comedian who looks to a genie for a quick fix to success; the episode was directed by Steven Spielberg."
(2) Only in his perrennial rendition of the "Hannukah Song" does Sandler remind us of his Jewishness. I have always thought the song was the cry of pain of a Jew trapped in a Gentile world.
(3) According to Keaton himself, Harry Houdini saw Keaton when he was a baby fall down some stairs and remarked, "That sure was a buster!" The name stuck. Keaton, who performed all his own stunts, broke his neck without realizing it shooting a scene in Sherlock Jr. (1924) when a blast of water from a railroad water tank knocked his head against the train track. He only found out about it when, months later, his doctor examined an x-ray of his skull and told him that a fracture in his cervical spine was healed nicely.
(4) The 2014 film The Cobbler was so awful that even Sandler's Wikipedia page failed to mention it.
(5) "Which Adam Sandler films to watch, and which to avoid," Gwilym Mumford, The Guardian, 18 April 2017.

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