Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Does Adam Sandler Deserve All the Hate? -- Reflections on "Jack and Jill" (2011) and "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" (2011)

And someone thought this was a good idea...?
Recently, the Golden Raspberries, our annual celebration of all that is unholy in cinema, nominated Adam Sandler for an unprecedented 11 Razzies as producer, writer, and actor in two of last year’s worst received films: Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star and Jack and Jill. Both films were nominated for Worst Film, Worst Ensemble, Worst Actor, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Sandler himself received the dual honor of being nominated as both Worst Actor and Worst Actress for his performance as brother/sister twins in Jack and Jill. It’s obvious that both of these films are awful, but the question to be begged is “how awful?” and “does Adam Sandler deserve all the hate?”

The answer is a loud, obnoxious “YES!!!”

And ... no.

Let me explain...starting with “yes.”

Jack and Jill, just released for home consumption, ends with a scene in which Al Pacino (playing himself) watches a television commercial for Dunkin’ Donuts he has just starred in for Sandler’s advertising agency. After watching the hideous clip, Pacino declares, “Destroy it. No one is to ever see this.” I think the same could be said for Jack and Jill. How Sandler ever thought this was a funny idea for a film is beyond me. More and more his career seems to line up with the caricature he plays in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, in which, as the main character, he stars in movies where he plays such iconic figures as a merman and a talking baby with Sandler’s head attached to its body. Jack and Jill is evidence that for Sandler, making movies is more about hanging out with his buddies and laughing at their own inside jokes than it is about producing a film that genuinely connects with an audience.

At every turn, Jack and Jill seems to strive to alienate its intended audience. Sandler plays Jack, an advertising director in charge of his own ad firm who can’t stand his crazy twin sister, Jill. He plays Jack as an asshole whose own unlikability makes it impossible to sympathize with as his sister arrives to spend Thanksgiving with the family. We are supposed to care for Jack’s plight, but he consistently aggravates us as his choices are either designed to passive-aggressively placate those around him, or blatantly require using and mistreating people. The first rule of telling a good story is to establish a main character who we can either sympathize with, or relate to on some level. Even if the character is an absolute tyrant, there still must be a goal, or an underlying character trait that elicits an audience connection. Hating your annoying twin sister is not exactly sympathetic – it’s a trite plot point designed to set up an irritating character and silly situations, not to establish a story arc that will be rewarding later.

Now, I can see where some will read that last paragraph and suggest that I’m looking at this the wrong way, or thinking too much about a comedy film. Consider, though, the best comedies we’ve ever seen: Animal House, Some Like It Hot, Airplane, Blazing Saddles. Each has protagonists we can root for, with basic conflicts we can understand. Even modern gems like Superbad, The Hangover, and Bridesmaids reveal sympathetic characters at the heart of their stories, even if on the surface they may appear unlikable. Sandler doesn’t seem to be interested in creating characters grounded in reality, instead choosing broad generalizations and stereotypes.

Take, for example, the character Jill. She is the stereotypical Jewish yenta. She’s loud, obnoxious, oblivious, and judgmental, all to mask an undercurrent of loneliness and the need to matter. How many times have we seen this character? Saturday Night Live, Sandler’s former stomping grounds, built sketches around this. Better comedies, like Moonstruck, took the stereotype and created much more believable characters for the sake of its comedy. From the moment Jill appears, all we want to do is punch her in the face, like Sandler’s adopted Indian son does at Thanksgiving dinner. This is a big problem, because it proves that Jack, the asshole, is right about her, thereby sucking all the comedy and interest from the plot. Had he been wrong about her, and she turned out to be level-headed, friendly, and fun, the movie could have set up a much greater number of comedic set pieces to make Jack look like a bigger jackass. Or, like in Meet the Parents, we could have been given a bit of a mystery and left to wonder why Jack seems so wrong about his sister, as Ben Stiller’s Greg Focker initially appeared to misunderstand his fiancé’s family. As is, there is no joy to be had when the jerk is proven right. This is true in art as it is in life.

Because Jack and Jill gets so much wrong on the conceptual level, it becomes even harder to forgive it for its other grating problems. The biggest problem is the blatant ethnic stereotyping and veiled racism the movie promotes. Sandler is very proud to be Jewish, as evidenced by his stand-up act and various songs, but in this movie he portrays Jewish people as entitled, bitter, and lacking in humor. The film opens with Jack and his assistant (Nick Swardson) discussing his sister’s impending arrival for Thanksgiving, and Jack constantly traps Swardson’s character into making accidental comments about Jews. “Jews can talk about Jews, but non-Jews can’t” is the summation of Jack’s comments to his assistant. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer had a similar concern in Annie Hall, but he used the fear of anti-Semitism to show Alvy’s neuroses, not for him to alienate other characters. The humor doesn’t reveal character so much as denigrate one.

The Jewish stereotyping is only one of the issues this film has with ethnicity. Jack’s adopted son is from India, and he is constantly portrayed as an outsider, with Jill making plenty of stereotyped comments about him over Thanksgiving dinner. He also has a weird fetish for taping objects to his body, which only serves to further make it clear that he is abnormal. What bothers me mostly is that Jack’s family is supposed to look like good liberals for adopting a poor Indian child. This seemed to serve no purpose other than to use someone’s ethnicity to make a main character look good; the overall effect is cheap, and profoundly exploitative.

We also spend time with the family’s gardener, a blatant Mexican stereotype who punctuates every Mexican putdown with “I just keeeding!” Later on, Jill joins the gardener for a family fiesta in which the Mexican family eats raw chili peppers, plays soccer, drinks Bud Light, and are all named some variation on Jose and Juan (the only detail they screw up is that the family eats Pace Picante salsa, which is obvious product placement, but proves that the producers don’t know the first thing about traditional Mexican families). The whole scene is tacked on, rings false, and only serves to reinforce commonly held thoughts about Mexican culture. In the recent movie, A Better Life, on the other hand, we get a beautiful sequence in which a father takes his son to a Mexican rodeo to pass time while they are searching for a missing truck; the result of the trip is a better appreciation for Mexican culture by the man’s Americanized son. While Jack and Jill is not a drama, it still has an obligation to take the culture of its characters seriously; it doesn’t and the result is a base understanding that appeals more to people who will spend their time going “uh huh” during the movie than going “ah ha.”

The movie’s overall opinion of various cultural groups is that they are the butt of a joke, but as long as things work out for them in the end, it’s okay to insult them. This also holds true for the film’s opinion of women. For a film in which the star plays a man and a woman, there seems to be little sympathy for women in general. They are either gross, passive, nagging, or lonely and in need of love. Sandler and his chums don’t seem to have the first clue about women, as is evidenced in the completely invisible role of Katie Holmes as Jack’s wife. She is given nothing to do other than nag Jack about being nice to his sister, take care of the kids, or pass judgment on Jack. Holmes is a good actress, so I don’t understand how she felt this was a role worth her time and energy. Any extra could have played this part, that’s how thankless it is. By putting a name actress in the part, though, the movie makes the role seem somehow more significant, therefore highlighting the misogyny at its heart. And Jill’s shrill presence doesn’t help matters either. She’s portrayed as a bother, a bore, and/or a sex object. When Al Pacino falls in love with her, it’s not because he’s in love with her, but because of the fact that they came from the same neighborhood. She’s an object to him, not a real woman. It’s sickening, especially since so much of the film is based on Jack prostituting his twin sister to secure Pacino’s involvement on a business saving commercial.

Considering the failed premise, the blatant ethnic stereotyping, and the hatred towards women this movie puts forth, I can only assume the movie represents Adam Sandler’s personal attitudes, and those of his friends, who appear in every one of his films. That doesn’t seem fair, I imagine, but when you take a look the other films Sandler has put his name on over the years (Billy Madison, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, Grown Ups), it becomes harder not to think he has a very obtuse worldview. His films play like frat house features where he and his drinking pals riff on anything that comes to mind, only they don’t realize that all of those jokes were much funnier because they were drunk.

Nothing makes this more obvious than the other film the Razzies awarded Sandler nominations for – Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. Jack and Jill is a solid turd compared to this puddle of diarrhea. As with Jack and Jill, stereotypes (both ethnic and otherwise) abound, but the unsubtle raunchiness is such that the movie seems out of touch with anything resembling reality. It is as if this film was made in a different dimension in which there are different rules governing the physics of comedy. I can’t imagine anyone other than the people who made this film finding it funny (save those whose collective intelligence can be collected in shot glasses, or tabs of LSD).

Sandler doesn’t star in this film, but he co-wrote it as a star vehicle for his pal Nick Swardson. Swardson plays Bucky Larson, a buck-toothed mid-western hick of limited intelligence who decides to become a porn star after discovering his parents were in 86 adult films in the 70s. Bucky travels to Los Angeles, meets a lot of crazy people, and eventually becomes a successful porn star, even though he has a microscopic penis and an issue with premature ejaculation. The premise is moronic, of course. One of the writers must have been quite proud when they said, “Hey, I gots an idea – let’s make the anti-Boogie Nights – about a porn star with a tiny dick!” This is one of those ideas that sounds better in your head than spoken aloud.

Before I continue, a couple things must be said about raunchy humor. In order for raunch to work in a story, it has to come from characters. Raunch for its own sake is simply gross, and more shocking than funny. A character needs to interact with the sexual humor in a way that challenges them for it to be funny. Usually it’s the characters who are the most appalled by, or the ones who are the most unprepared for the sexual situations that are the funniest. Take, for example, Jim in American Pie. He desperately wants to lose his virginity, but he’s unprepared when Shannon Elizabeth’s character takes off her clothes for him. We laugh at his premature ejaculation because we want to see him achieve his goal, and recognize that it’s not going to happen yet. In The Hangover, Stu serves a similar purpose – he is constantly shocked by the goings-on as he and the bachelor party try to figure out what happened during their roofie-enhanced evening. A good raunchy comedy doesn’t force us to laugh at the gross sexual humor as much as it allows us to discover it.

Bucky Larson doesn’t do this at all. It gives us a character so broad and goofy in his naïveté that the raunchy humor simply feels perverted and disgusting. He isn’t even startled by any of it, merely accepting, which means we are supposed to be accepting of the gross outs. This makes everything feel wrong. A good raunchy comedy leaves you laughing, not feeling the need of a shower.

Take, for example, the moment Bucky discovers his parents’ past. He is hanging out with his group of friends in a basement, getting ready to watch a stag film. Bucky reveals that he has never masturbated before, and the boys trade euphemisms for jerking off for a bit until the film is queued. Then they put Bucky in a beanbag chair and tell him how to stroke himself. When Bucky realizes he is masturbating to the images of his parents having sex, he doesn’t behave in any realistic way – no shame, fear, or anything resembling normal human behavior. He embraces the experience and receives encouragement from his friends. This has to be one of the most depraved moments ever in a comedy. Not only is it simply wrong that he is whacking off to his parents having sex, because his reaction is so casual and awestruck, it gives the appearance that Bucky is turned on by it. His friends’ acceptance makes it worse; wouldn’t one of them be creeped out by this?

I could spend time highlighting the problems with every sexual joke in this movie, but there’s no sense. The reason there’s a problem here boils down to what I’ve been saying about Sandler’s overall perspective in his films: he does not respect people, or his audience.

This wouldn’t be such a concern – it’s not like there aren’t tons of people in Hollywood who disrespect their audience – if it wasn’t for the fact that Sandler seems set on making serious films with good filmmakers. He’s worked with P.T. Anderson on Punch-Drunk Love, James L. Brooks on Spanglish, and Judd Apatow on Funny People. Sandler obviously wants to be taken seriously – hell, on the recent Oscar telecast, he participated in a series of interviews talking about movie quality. If he wasn’t looking to be taken seriously, I doubt I’d care so much about his movies. I’d treat them like I treat Farrelly Brothers movies – as non-entities (with the exception of There’s Something About Mary).

When someone goes out of their way to be seen as a quality actor, then makes such offensive swill as Jack and Jill and Bucky Larson, it’s hard to figure out what the angle is. Is it just money? Over half of Sandler’s movies have grossed in excess of $100 million, so I guess that’s reason to keep going to this well, even if the water is poisoned. Money only does so much, though. Sandler wants to be an artist.

Perhaps Sandler’s issue is an issue with Hollywood at large. The system wants to be seen as a place where true art is made, yet continues to pump out useless sequels and reboots with little concern for audience acceptance. When The Artist won Best Picture at the Oscars, one of the most prevalent comments involved how the movie symbolized the executives’ need to be taken seriously by the general public, while still wanting to rake money in hand over fist, which is why so many Academy voters openly awarded a film very few people paid money to see.

This said, while Sandler has created two atrocities over the last year, maybe he’s not as deserving of as much hate as he has been getting. He’s a product of a system that has, at its core, the same conflict his movies generate. And even though his brand of humor is sophomoric, asinine, and misguided in terms of its treatment of race, ethnicity, gender, and sex, this is what modern Hollywood seems to want from its funny people. In a lot of ways, Sandler has been set up for failure, given carte blanche to create projects due to his past financial success. He, like most of Hollywood, has lost touch with real people, instead creating the sort of work only he and his pals find funny – as well as those who will laugh at something as simple-minded as a man in a dress and a dude with a small cock.

So, the hatred for Sandler’s films is much deserved, but we can hold out hope for him. Both Jack and Jill and Bucky Larson were enormous box office busts (ranking 48th and 176th respectively last year), and with the overwhelming Razzie nominations, maybe Sandler will realize he needs to be real. Then again, with his forthcoming film That’s My Boy on the way in June, we might just be revisiting these arguments again very soon.

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