Monday, November 14, 2011

adam sandler, dadaist?

There is an overwhelming amount of hatred from critics and others on the internet being spewed at Adam Sandler's latest release, Jack and Jill. Many critics seem outraged that the movie exists at all, slamming its plot (or lack thereof), the sight of Sandler in drag, the undercurrent of misogyny (Really? I'll address that in a bit.) What I find the most perplexing is why would anyone be surprised at Jack and Jill. It is exactly what it set out to be. A movie which presents Adam Sandler in a dress. What exactly were critics expecting?

Sandler has always been a populist comedian. Some would call him lazy, but mostly, I think he is plainly uncomfortable onscreen. He is a huge star, but maybe a bit embarrassed about it. He is able to push the envelope in moves produced by others (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish), but for the most part he has made comedies (with his company Happy Madison Productions) that like to pit him as an everyman looking for love (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates) or just chock-full of hit-or-miss gags (Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, etc.)

Sandler is the rare comedian who, although we know he is a multimillionaire, somehow is still able to connect with his audience and his regular guy, pre-success persona. Does Sandler feel pressured to churn out a product every year or so? Maybe. Grown Ups seemed like he decided to make a movie where he took a bunch of his friends on a vacation. It worked, because for the most part it was fun to go along for the ride.

Sandler has an undeniable sense of loyalty to his circle of friends. He has worked with many of the actors in Jack and Jill before, and you know he will again:

From Saturday Night Live - Norm MacDonald, Dana Carvey, Tim Meadows, David Spade

Nick Swardson (Just Go with It, Bedtime Stories, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry).

Actor turned director Dennis Dugan (Just Go with It, Grown Ups, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry)

He obviously wants to work with people he likes and he has the money and power to make it happen.

I used to hate Adam Sander movies. I found Big Daddy and Little Nicky especially offensive. My ex-boyfriend would watch and laugh and I felt like I was watching something in another language. I just didn't get it. I liked some of his Saturday Night Live shtick and sing-song singing. But I was more than a tad perplexed when he became such a huge star. He definitely had a demographic and knew how to connect with them.

In more recent years either his demographic changed or I did, because I started catching his movies on cable and liked some of them. Bedtime Stories has some nice bits, especially with goofy Russell Brand. I really like The Wedding Singer - let's face it, he had me at Buscemi (another frequent collaborator). Having a kid has definitely changed how I view Sandler and his movies. My daughter absolutely loves Grown Ups and was bugging me to see Jack and Jill from the first time she saw a preview. I must not be the only parent dragged to the drag comedy. Jack and Jill  opened as the #2 movie at the box office, earning $26 million.

Kids and the families they drag along with them have become Sandler's core audience. The humor in his movies is about on par with the silly kid-coms my daughter loves to watch on the Disney channel. When we went to see Jack and Jill this weekend five out of six previews for upcoming family-oriented fare were animated movies. I love me some Miyazaki and Puss in Boots, but there are only so many sassy-voiced animated character films that I can sit through. Live-action movies for kids are becoming more and more rare. This weekend Jack and Jill was the only family film available if you wanted to go to the movies and hadn't already seen Puss in Boots.

So after Sandler decided, "Wouldn't it be funny if I played twins and one of them was a woman ..." what else did he come up with? Well, most critics are correct to point out not that much. There is only the wisp of a plot — clinging, cringe-worthy Jill has always embarrassed her brother, so he wants to figure out some way to get rid of her as soon as she arrives. Which of course won't happen. And in the end he finally realizes how much Jill means to him. That's it. Except, there's the little curveball of Al Pacino. Pacino plays ... Pacino, who has lost his mind on stage after a person loudly answered his cell phone during his performance of Richard III. Sandler has Pacino spoof most of his classic performances (Godfather, Scarface). This is definitely what is driving many critics mad, who might have looked the other way at merely a Sandler-in-drag movie. But to tarnish the actor who so many idolize — sacrilege! Never mind that Pacino's particular brand of ham has been over-the-top for quite some time. He approaches his role with relish and is responsible for most of the funniest bits in the film - which I'm sure Sandler was counting on.

But if Sandler and Pacino are more than in on the joke, than is it really one of the most terrible movies ever made or a dadaist exercise?
Dada definition via Wikipedia: ... a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works ... also anti-bourgeois and anarchist in nature. 
Have they made a critic-proof film by making a movie that isn't really a movie, but just an acting out of "what ifs?" Sandler and Pacino have described in interviews how strange it is for Pacino to even appear in the film, a fact that is built into the script, as commercial producer Jack tries to get famous actor Al Pacino to star in a Dunkin' Donuts commercial. Sandler plays up the improbability, the joke nature of the entire enterprise. Sandler doing drag is hardly believable — but he also has characters in the movie doubt Jill's female authenticity. As if that wasn't enough, in order to snare Pacino, Jack dresses up, even more unconvincingly as his sister, so at one point the movie has two drag Sandlers. One of the times I actually laughed out loud was when my daughter, who knew full well it was the guy from Grown Ups playing both parts, leaned over and whispered, "Jack doesn't even look like Jill!"

So is Adam Sandler, who doesn't make a very convincing woman — his Jill dresses in a very loud, Milton Berle-ish version of a woman, she isn't even contemporary — using drag in a misogynistic way? No matter how "ugly" Jill is supposed to be, her character is universally liked by characters in the story a lot more than Jack's. Jack may have the "perfect" family, but they are clearly bored by him. Shakespeare played with gender confusion, as did Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it  Hot and the characters in La Cage Aux Folles and its American version The Birdcage. But most modern drag in comedy, sketch comedies like Monty Python, Benny Hill, In Living Color, and Saturday Night Live, where Sandler first appeared as a Gap Girl, play up the disbelief factor, as Sandler does here.

Jack and Jill also has an abundance of cameos, which further lend an air of making-it-up-as-they-went-along to the proceedings.  Drew Carey, John McEnroe, Christie Brinkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Bruce Jenner, and Regis Philbin all show up for a few moments as well as a host of infomercial stars — Jared from Subway, Billy Blanks, and the ShamWow! guy. Rob Schnieder is listed as "Alan" on imdb but I didn't spot him. David Spade fights Johnny Depp for the most memorable cameo — Spade in drag vs. Depp wearing a Justin Bieber tee. It could be argued that Katie Holmes, who plays Jack's wife, is a cameo role, as she exists solely to applaud Jill and scold Jack.

So will all of the bad reviews change how Sandler & Co. do business? Not likely. Will we be seeing him in drag anytime soon? Not likely, either. And what about Pacino? Will anyone be able to watch one of his old movies with the same degree of awe? I think Michael Corleone, at least in the first two movies, is safe. But Tony Montana, a character that always seemed high camp to me, and not in a good way, has become even more of a caricature than ever before. Pacino in Jack and Jill does kind of make me want to see his Don Quixote ... Maybe we could look at the film as a long rehearsal for that role.

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