The latest Adam Sandler film, “Pixels,” bombed, and for this there should be much rejoicing. It’s not just another lazy Sandler effort; it’s a big budget, effects-heavy blockbuster that pits him and Kevin James against alien warriors who take the form of blocky, ’80s arcade characters. That it made a mere $24 million against a $130 million budget — coming in second to a “lesser” Marvel entry, “Ant-Man,” in its own second week — is some particularly rich schadenfreude, as is that his previous Happy Madison production, last year’s “Blended,” did even worse.
But not so fast. Even the devil deserves some sympathy, as does a guy who simply makes terrible movies. (And the critic Bilge Ebiri penned an excellent defense of Sandler’s work.) This hasn’t been a great year for Sandler, who not only fared terribly with his own product, but also with two indies. “Men, Women & Children” and “The Cobbler” — which paired him with acclaimed directors Jason Reitman and Thomas McCarthy, respectively — actually received worse reviews than the usual mainstream Sandler outing. Perhaps worse, for him at least, they barely made a blip at the box office. The latter might even turn into a camp classic, especially given the insane turn it takes in the final minutes. Throw in a snafu in which Native American actors walked off the set of one of his Netflix-only movies, incensed over race jokes, plus Rose McGowan leaking out a sexist audition memo, and Sandler now looks like a bro whose time has passed.
We’re not saying one should pity him because he’s a onetime golden boy in a career slump. We are saying that one should pity him because, at this point, he looks actively depressed. His performance in “Pixels” is beyond sleepy; he tends to look a combination of tired and cranky, as though pissed that he had to get out of bed at all. He’s been that way for awhile. He was an energy vacuum in “Blended” too, and before then were the two “Grown Up” entries — films that really look like he just went on vacation with his buds and filmed their low-watt banter. At one point in the second film they just spend a fairly long stretch walking around Kmart.
One could say these films are arrogant — that he assumes his fanbase will turn out for anything he does, no matter how little effort he puts into them. One could say this is arrogant as well as tragic. Sandler is a pretty cagey interview, and when he does something daring, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” or Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” he hasn’t been vocal about what, if anything, they mean to him as, like, an artist. We can’t be sure how much of the real Sandler is in “Funny People”’s George Simmons, a comedic megastar who hates himself and the lowest common denominator films that have netted him a mansion but a miserable life of empty sex and loneliness. (In real life, Sandler is a family man.)
We can’t say if the failure of these films — plus dramas like “Spanglish” and “Reign Over Me” — to either make gobs of cash or net him acting trophies has consigned him to a hell of the exact kinds of dumb movies “Funny People” mercilessly mocked. We can look at his joyless face in “Pixels” and see something akin to a Charles Foster Kane: a man who raked in unimaginable wealth only to retreat to his own private Xanadu. In Sandler’s case, Xanadu is the Happy Madison world, where he’s unchallenged, where he surrounds himself with his friends and cranks out movies like it was nothing.
As purgatories go this one isn’t so bad. But there’s so little mirth in his performances that one can’t help but detect a trace of desperation — a need to try something else. At this point he can’t even get excited in non-Happy Madison movies. He’s as awake in “Men, Women & Children” and “The Cobbler” as he is in “Pixels” and “Blended,” where he drags down potentially alive scenes with his palpable boredom. He doesn’t even get angry anymore. He used to lapse into funny voices and his patented shouting fits — jags that inspired Paul Thomas Anderson to dig even deeper into his shtick with “Punch-Drunk Love.” Now he just quietly whimpers about snobs.
Sandler’s obsession with a slobs-vs.-snobs mentality may unlock what’s really wrong with him. His films have always pitted goofy slackers like him and his gang against the uptight, be they careerists, cultured aesthetes or coded homosexual men. In “Pixels” he passive-aggressively upbraids his token love interest (Michelle Monahan) for being too stuck-up to date a guy like him. She eventually comes around, if only by embracing her inner slob. (The preferred Sandler lover is a lot like the “Cool Girl” type laid out by Amazing Amy in “Gone Girl.”) What may be closer to the truth is that Sandler secretly wants to be a snob too. You can sense someone who’s more than just a bro. In “Big Daddy” he featured two gay characters who were entirely positive — in 1999. (That’s to say nothing of the actually progressive “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” in which he delivers a po-faced message of tolerance after detailing to his fanbase what it’s like to face discrimination by bigots.)
But by this point he just seems tired. Even his “artier” films seem lazier. “Happy Gilmore,” his second big vehicle, is by no means a great, or even good, film, but watch it and you can see him trying. He even goes blow to blow with Bob Barker! There are a couple decent jokes! (It’s no Oscar Wilde, but one exchange — Villain: “I eat pieces of s— like you for breakfast.” Sandler: “You eat pieces of s— for breakfast?” Villain: “[stammers] No!” — is pretty funny.) Now watch “Pixels,” where he can barely muster the energy to deliver limp insults. This is a guy who hasn’t just gotten older and therefore less energetic. This is a guy who’s gotten truly bored with himself. And now that even a slam dunk like a film where he shoots at Centipede and fights Pac-Man can’t make dough may be time for him to really, truly reconsider his legacy. Perhaps he’s not as bad off as his “Funny People” character. But he might be even more sad.