For more than twenty years now, Adam Sandler has been America’s comic champion of democracy. He has taken it upon himself to give a sentimental account of American freedom and the humiliation suffered by outcasts. He thought America too enamored of glamour — so he decided to be the counter-cultural hero of the times. He wanted to achieve success by failure, to show how lovable the unglamorous are. Since magazines and TV only pay attention to celebrities, he wanted to celebrate the humanity of the forgotten instead.
Sandler movies typically come to a happy end by humbling the proud and redeeming the humble. In the element of comedy, by the use of a contrived plot where every accident is planned, Sandler can get all Americans to come together. He brings the pretentious low and raises the disdained in a comic equivalent of the middle class.
He’s neither left nor right, politically. Strict morality is negotiable in his stories and capitalism is useful. Family, not individualism, is the basis of society, but family is flexible enough to adapt to social changes in an age of individual self-expression. Justice wins, but some laws are bent in the process. Cleverness, in short, is put in service to our human dignity, which grounds our equality despite all our differences.
But, lately, his star has dimmed and there is no one left in America to unite the country by comedy. It is only the misery of the times that shows what a rare and unique thing he attempted and what a humble claim to greatness he once made. It’s not obvious why he should have been eclipsed, because Sandler positioned himself very well for the future of American entertainment by signing a deal with Netflix, for six movies, the fourth of which is now available: “The Week Of.”
This is a very mediocre picture, funny at times and wearisome at times. Sandler plays a Jewish father on Long Island, whose daughter is getting married to Chris Rock’s son. Chris Rock plays a rich surgeon from L.A. who cheated on his wife until she divorced him and who still lives the life of a glamorous playboy. (This is strangely close to Chris Rock’s own revelations of his infidelity in his recent Netflix comedy show, “Tambourine.”)
What should follow is a comedy where racial difference are solved, inasmuch as possible, by turning into social class differences. This way, everyone gets a chance at redemption if they humble themselves enough to be made fun of, because rich can turn into poor or the poor rich. Sandler tries to pull it off, but the movie just lacks a good plot — it fails to find the right comic accidents and foolish mistakes to the happy end it needs.
Maybe he doesn’t know how to write for the times — his inclination is to make fun of himself, not to mock the class contempt that poisons American society. He might need to be crueler to be kind. At the same time, he’s trying very hard to elevate family above career, which is a hard sell these days, and he just fails to put enough trusting love into the family comedy. Of course, our entertainment has wiped out the family from our consciousness, and our society is very bad at it, too — it’s our own failures we see in the movie.
The best part of the movie shows in exasperating detail the foolishness and failures of middle-class families that try to provide a better life for their kids than they had themselves. Sandler does an admirably earnest portrayal of a father who fears he is losing his daughter and thus tries to give her the best wedding he can, only to face everywhere the meagerness of his means. His kindness and willingness to bear insult is not rewarded in modern America. With proper writing, the movie would have shown that the burden of comedy is to make the agony of downward mobility bearable.
My suspicion is, America doesn’t care for this sort of humor anymore. Who has patience for the ugly and the foolish, for the embarrassing and the awkward? Our recent political obsession make us so righteous that we cannot afford to put a foot wrong. Our economic insecurity makes us dangerously hard of heart when it comes to securing a place in a future where not all Americans can find happiness and where, to tell the ugly truth, larger and larger numbers self-destruct in despair. Our society is confused by technological change, so we don’t know quite how to be social.
Sandler is not prepared to deal with these changes and his audience, to judge by lack of media interest, seems to be abandoning him. People no longer trust that he can find a way to get them from their worst fears all the way to their better angels, so his moral convictions — his artistic humanism — now seem quaint. But the vulgarity of Sandler’s comedy thus reveals itself to be far more tender and far more careful of our lives than we ourselves can tolerate. He never stopped loving us — but we just cannot allow our private weaknesses to reveal our characters anymore and we dare not laugh at ourselves to save our sanity.
In some way, he’s stuck in the past. Before his Netflix deals, Sandler tried to make movies about middle-class dignity and how family should work, two of which were both successful and worthwhile, “Just go with it” and “Grownups.” But that image of middle-class life has simply been destroyed in our entertainment and he knows it. His Jewish jokes and his lovably dysfunctional family are self-consciously old-school, because he wants people not to forget what stability felt like.
Unfortunately, he is himself confused, ever since he gained his freedom from studio control, whereas most of his movies previously were always morally sound and often unrivaled for their willingness and ability to lay bare the fears of the American soul. Without him, we see that our entertainment can only show us our fears by turning them into nightmares that get as boring as they are bleak. We’ve simply lost the courage for comedy.
Even so, his Netflix movies are shows of the Sandler ethos. “The Ridiculous Six” was a Western farce intent on achieving a dignified equality for every race and every generation, making America one comically screwed-up family, but a family that was able, in the freedom of the lawless Old West, to assert human dignity and defend it from exploitation. It dealt with our problems of family collapse and had the courage to portray bastardy. If you don’t think Sandler is heroic in his comic way, consider that almost no one in the press or in entertainment dares to say the word, much less to face the facts or deal with the people involved.
That was funny, all-American movie. His second effort, however, “The Do-over,” was a catastrophe typical of our individualistic instincts. We sometimes want to escape our lives and some people really want to escape their lives all the time. Sandler summarily declares America the land of second chances and gives a man freedom from his misery — the result is an explosion of erotic orgies. While true to the dark fantasies and threatening realities of our times, it’s a complete failure in terms of plot and comic control of the situation. Every episode in the movie is understandable, but they collapse however you might try to assemble them. Sandler, though he doesn’t know it, needs a writer with a hard-headed respect for American moral conventions.
The third movie was the best and I don’t think we’ll see its like again. “Sandy Wexler,” not even noticed in the press, is the best, most earnest statement of our problems with celebrity worship these days. Sandy is a wannabe producer, fated to fail because he believes Hollywood’s beautiful lies. He treats people humanely and that makes him incompetent. As a result, he bears the burden of all our lies and tries to spare everyone else’s feelings, including his tormentors. He suffers for the vices of audiences who want glamour and talent who want evil handlers to deal with everything for them. You cannot have success worship without a success machine, and that runs on human victims. Sandy is the most sainted one of them.
The humanity of that suffering pays off in the comedy, but, apparently, not in reality. Sandler tried to show that there’s some good in Hollywood and that there’s some truth to the beautiful illusions, after all, and it could all work out if people learned about human dignity. He elicits a sadness and a sense of shame in the audience, and that prove his point, that we are tempted to hold normal people in contempt and that we know we should behave better.
Two more films will come to complete this deal, but I fear Sandler’s career is over. The audience doesn’t believe him anymore, to their detriment. I think it’s time, therefore, to reveal his secrets. The success of his comedy, concealed in vulgarity and pretended idiocy, depends on a sense of grace. There is always the faint, but unmistakable trace of divine favor about the heroes he portrays.
They first win our hearts and have us honestly hope they succeed, which turns out to be good for all of us. They then also humble us, because they rely on a goodness that we know we cannot entirely live up to. Ultimately, they are not about comedy, but about providence. We might get rid of Sandler, but we will need his understanding of providence again, or else our entertainment will turn to despair.