Photo by Myles AronowitzADAM SANDLER IS THE UNFUNNIEST FUNNYMAN in show business, so why is he a star? The Brooklyn-born 32-year-old has appeared in a dozen films, including Shakes the Clown, but up until a few years ago was best known as one of the unfathomable reasons why Saturday Night Live was merely moribund, not dead. That was then; now he earns $20 million a picture. Like the late Chris Farley, whose appeal was similarly unfathomable, Sandler built his nascent reputation on brand loyalty and audience nostalgia for authentic comic talents such as Bill Murray, nurturing it in the hothouse of our apparently illimitable bad taste. From there it was just a small step to cheap studio fare like Billy Madison, a witless movie about the son of a hotel magnate. Happy Gilmore, released the following year, was marginally better, primarily because it showcased Sandler as a smirking golf pro who was, at times, dealt as harsh a hand as he offered, as in the gleefully nasty brawl between the star and The Price Is Right's silver fox, Bob Barker.
By the time last year's blandly diverting The Wedding Singer had become Sandler's breakthrough, and The Waterboy, arriving just months later, was becoming his triumph, the new American comedy wave was cresting with the runaway success of There's Something About Mary. Bobby and Peter Farrelly's ribald comedy was the fourth grossing movie of the year; it earned $27 million more than the fifth-place Waterboy, and its impact on the public imagination was deeper and more enduring. Along with Jim Carrey, the writer-director brothers, whose genius for gross-out burlesque is matched only by their seeming indifference to the art and craft of film, are the most important and talented mainstream figures in this wave. In this company, Sandler, bereft of both Carrey's elastic grace and the Farrellys' imagination, comes off more like a beneficiary of the revolution than an instigator. (Given the climate for bigger, grosser, meaner, it's no surprise that neither Wes Anderson nor Alexander Payne, the most exciting new voices in film comedy, have been unsuccessful at drawing blockbuster audiences. Which might help to insure their marginality as well as their singular visions.)
The Waterboy earned some $20 million more than Carrey's star vehicle, The Truman Show, a self-important comedy-drama from director Peter Weir about one of Hollywood's perennial themes: the horror of celebrity. There was a notable autobiographical slant to the project -- Carrey himself is struggling to escape his muse. As with so many comic geniuses, he seems intent on abandoning his true inclinations for the more respectable returns of serious projects, such as Milos Forman's upcoming biography of Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon. (Unlike Jerry Lewis, from whom he's stolen so freely and so well, Carrey is leaving the Holocaust comedies to buffoons like Roberto Benigni.) Sandler apparently shares the itch to be taken more seriously, as no doubt befits his heftier wallet, an urge hinted at in The Wedding Singer and given further evidence by Big Daddy, a movie about a 32-year-old jerk who becomes an even bigger jerk by adopting a 5-year-old boy. The story, its tone, its meaning and its inevitable widespread appeal are all handily condensed in the publicity image of Sandler and the tot peeing against a door. That the movie will make a bundle is guaranteed, even if it's hard to shake the feeling that with Big Daddy, Sandler and his co-creators have failed to treat the audience with any more respect than that door. Both, apparently, exist to be pissed on.
BIG DADDY IS A ROTTEN MOVIE -- UGLY TO LOOK AT, badly directed. But none of that is enough to hate it, especially in this era of diminished movie craft. True, Sandler is tiresomely one-dimensional as Sonny Koufax, a law-school graduate living off his settlement from a minor accident, a sourpuss who's meant to be sweetened by the entrance of a child into his life and a convenient new romance. And the kid, Julian (played by twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse), was trained in the Jackie Cooper school of abject sentimentalism -- saucer eyes and lisp ("kangawoo") -- while the love interest, Layla (Joey Lauren Adams), a lawyer like most of Sonny's other friends, never does manage to seem convincingly enthused about the man of her dreams. Two of the other major roles are filled by Rob Schneider, as a dim witted, nameless delivery man, and Leslie Mann, as a young woman who's relentlessly taunted by Sonny for her big tits and for having put herself through school by waitressing at Hooters. This more or less explains Big Daddy's humor (unaccountably, the movie is being pitched as female-friendly), though not its soullessness.
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Perhaps the most unexpected quality of the Austin Powers movies is their core sweetness, this despite the new film's surfeit of toilet humor and unfunny fat jokes. Sweetness and ingenuousness are as much the key to Mike Myers' charm as his facility for refurbishing the most fatigued of pop cultural relics, which is why he's better at soliciting giggles than belly laughs. There's nothing sweet about Jim Carrey, just as there was never anything sweet about Jerry Lewis, try as the great man did with one bathetic exercise after another. But what Carrey lacks for in sweetness -- the perception of tenderness and vulnerability that makes someone like Myers as beloved as he is loved -- he more than makes up for with timing and pyrotechnic physicality. Like Lewis, he has a genius for playing the freak. And Adam Sandler? His gift has always been for playing dumb, giving attitude if not life to a succession of overgrown boys who are as fundamentally stupid at the end of the movie as they are at the beginning.
Of course, the characters are never really dumb, in that they always get the last word as well as the girl. Invariably, they turn out to be smart, or smart enough, not because of the books they've read but because they're inherently bright, like the waterboy who's cleverer than everyone in school, even his snooty professor. These underachievers need never work too hard -- at real happiness, and especially romance. Success is their birthright. In Big Daddy, Sonny has opted out of the legal profession and instead works as a tollbooth operator, a job that, in keeping with Hollywood's disdain for work that isn't white collar, is played for laughs. But not at Sonny's expense, only those folks who really do have to work in tollbooths.
And that has been Sandler's essential appeal, the reason for his rocketing success. He's not only made mediocrity funny, given it fat box-office returns, a burgeoning fan base and the professed goodwill of the entertainment industry, but he's turned mediocrity into the triumph of the smug. No wonder he always looks like he's smiling at a joke that only he gets. An entertainment magazine recently proclaimed Sandler's success the "revenge of the nerd," but that's off the mark. For one thing, nerds don't mind being (or looking) smart. For another, nerds aren't lazy. It's hard to imagine Sandler, for instance, having the nerve to play The Cable Guy with as much physical abandon and lack of ego as did Carrey, one of the hardest-working men in show business. Sandler doesn't have Carrey's talent or drive, or, as is clear from the straight bits interspersed through Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer, anything close to his dramatic potential. And that smirk etched into Sandler's face cancels out any hope that he might develop into a serious actor, along the lines of, say, Tom Hanks. Which is why, finally, the big gamble in Big Daddy, the bid to turn Sandler into a grown-up -- a daddy and a lawyer -- will turn out to be a mistake. Stupidity has its limits, on screen and off.
BIG DADDY | Written STEVE FRANKS and TIM HERLIHY Directed by DENNIS DUGAN | Produced by SID GANIS and JACK GIARRAPUTO | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide