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Sean P. Means: Dissecting Adam Sandler: Is there anybody in there?

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published May 23 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 24 2014 05:32 pm

Earlier this year, Adam Sandler received a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Actor for his work in "Grown Ups 2" — the 12th time in his career he’s received that particular honor.

He didn’t win this time, as he has four times before (including the rare double of taking Worst Actor and Worst Actress simultaneously for "Jack & Jill"). But the nomination served as ironic tribute to Sandler’s entire career — because the Razzies organizers, in nominating him, were beating a joke to death.

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The comedy "Blended" arrives in theaters Friday, which again gives critics a chance to contemplate Sandler’s particular — and once exceedingly popular — brand of humor.

Some critics may be going a bit overboard. In New York magazine last month, Bilge Ebiri penned an essay headlined, "Why Adam Sandler Might Be the Most Important Comedian of His Generation."

Certainly he’s been one of the most successful. Of the 28 movies in which he’s starred, 14 of them made more than $100 million in North America, according to the website Box Office Mojo. Most Hollywood executives would sell their souls to the devil (again) for that kind of track record.

And those 14 don’t include the two, "Billy Madison" (1995) and "Happy Gilmore" (1996), that launched his movie stardom and gave the name to his production company, Happy Madison.

Those films set the template for most of what Sandler would do his entire career. Billy Madison is the idiot manchild he reprised in "The Waterboy" and "Little Nicky," while Happy Gilmore represented the rage-aholic he played in "Big Daddy," "Anger Management" and even in his one critically acclaimed film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Punch-Drunk Love."

Since that early success, there’s also been a sense that Sandler was coasting. He usually works with the same performers — comedy buddies like Kevin James or his former "Saturday Night Live" cohorts, like David Spade or Kevin Nealon. He usually works with the same directors ("Blended" is Frank Coraci’s fourth Sandler film, and Dennis Dugan has directed eight).

And the jokes usually play the same way, with Sandler floating above the fray. Roger Ebert, in his review of "The Wedding Singer" in 1998, noted that tendency: "It’s like he’s afraid of committing; he holds back so he can use the ‘only kidding’ defense."

Ebiri wrote that he "was struck by the profound sense of self-loathing at the heart of all his work. … You suspect that the Sandler characters, fueled by their self-loathing, could easily break character and nuke the proceedings, to bring the world crashing down upon itself."

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He has tried to break out into high-minded films — not only with "Punch-Drunk Love," but with the seriocomic "Funny People" and "Spanglish" and the 9/11 drama "Reign Over Me." The box-office receipts for each were underwhelming, and the experience seemed to drive Sandler back toward the old shtick.

My problem with Sandler, particularly in recent years, is that the behavior he lets his characters display is not funny — as he thinks it is — but borderline sociopathic. His characters in "That’s My Boy" and "Jack & Jill" were crude and boorish, and the movies treated that awfulness as just being eccentric.

Even a fun-loving romantic comedy like "Blended" begins with actions that would prompt a restraining order, not a second chance. (No spoilers here: The following is in the movie’s trailer, and all happens in the first 10 minutes.) The movie begins with Sandler’s character, Jim, on a blind date with Lauren (Drew Barrymore). First, he chooses Hooters for dinner, and his eyes only leave the TV above Lauren’s head to ogle the waitstaff. He chugs down both his beer and hers, leaving Lauren nothing to wash down the overly spicy buffalo shrimp. And, at the end, he goes Dutch.

Sandler, presumably, sees this as good old-fashioned guy humor — and maybe the fratboy demographic that has made him rich will go along with it. But even the preview audience with whom I saw the movie wasn’t laughing that hard.

That audience may also be finding him less relatable. I’m not the first critic who has noticed that Sandler’s characters have gotten progressively richer over the years — check out the McMansions in which he lives in "Grown Ups 2," "Jack & Jill" and "Click." He is more regular-guy in "Blended," a single dad raising three kids and working a regular job.

That may be a reaction to a restless audience. "Jack & Jill" was a so-so performer, and "That’s My Boy" tanked. "Grown Ups 2" was nearly as successful as the first one, but that and the animated "Hotel Transylvania" — in which Sandler provided the voice of Dracula — are the only hits he’s had in the past few years.

Sandler has long said he doesn’t make movies for critics. The critics, for the most part, don’t take it personally. We realize that critiquing his work is like reviewing the weather — we can like it or hate it, but we are unable to change it.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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