We humans divide ourselves into camps.
Liberals and conservatives.
Cat people and dog people.
Woody Allen fans and Adam Sandler fans.
Sandler, whose “Just Go With It” opens Friday, occupies a place in the hearts of Gen-Xers much in the way that Woody Allen is a cultural icon for baby boomers.
Those sounds you hear are the howls of protest and snorts of derision from graying movie watchers across the land. Mentioning the Woodman and Sandler in the same sentence? It’s an offense worthy of excommunication.
And yet, both men are immediately recognizable voices of their generations.
Woody Allen’s recent output has been variable ― and that’s being charitable.
And despite the dozen or so Sandler movies in heavy rotation on cable, there’s really only one Sandler movie ― “The Wedding Singer” ― worth watching beginning to end more than once.
Allen’s movies are informed by his many interests: philosophy, psychology, cinema, politics, morality, literature, his Jewish heritage, romantic love.
Sandler’s works, on the other hand, are characterized by comic rage, slapstick sadism and a childlike impulsiveness. Playing the nemesis in a Sandler movie guarantees that you’ll be kicked, punched or otherwise assaulted in the groin.
So the simple answer is the two are nothing alike. And yet in many ways, Allen and Sandler are at least comedy cousins.
Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler perform a scene in the Columbia Pictures’ comedy “Just Go with It.”(Tracy Bennett/Columbia Pictures/MCT)
Both grew up Jewish in Brooklyn and attended New York University (Sandler graduated; Allen, the intellectual, was dismissed for poor grades).
Both got their first taste of performing in comedy clubs and cut their teeth on television writing (Sandler for “Saturday Night Live,” Allen for Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan and “The Tonight Show”).
Neither is much of an actor. Allen early on established the performance persona of a neurotic New Yorker and has rarely strayed from it. Sandler usually plays the arrested adolescent, though in recent years he has attempted to break out of that mold.
Allen devotes most of his time to film (he has also written Broadway plays and several books). Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions is responsible for the TV series “Rules of Engagement” as well as numerous movies starring Sandler’s comedy friends (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “The Master of Disguise,” “Joe Dirt”).
Eric Melin, who covers popular entertainment at Lawrence, Kansas-based www.scene-stealers.com, understands Sandler’s appeal.
“Actually, I do not look forward to an Adam Sandler movie,” he said. “But I know a lot of people my age who grew up with Sandler, first on ‘SNL’ and then through films like ‘Happy Gilmore’ and ‘Billy Madison.’ To lots of people my age those are classic movies, the way ‘Animal House’ or ‘Caddyshack’ are classics for other generations. And they’ve left Sandler embedded in the culture.”
Melin said his favorite Sandler movies are those in which good directors place his misbehaving man/boy character in real world situations: Judd Apatow (“Funny People”), Mike Binder (“Reign Over Me”), James L. Brooks (“Spanglish”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punch-Drunk Love”).
“I love ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ where they took that angry kid persona to its furthest extreme. And in ‘Funny People,’ Judd Apatow tried to follow the logical progression of Sandler’s stock character into adulthood,” Melin said. “But, of course, those movies have all failed at the box office because they’re actually pretty bleak.”
Perhaps it all boils down to this: We cling to certain films and entertainers who were important to us in our formative years, from our late teens through our mid-30s.
Allen fans have seen him progress from inspired silliness (“Bananas,” “Sleeper”) to a world-class romance (“Annie Hall”) to funny/sad meditations on modern life (“Manhattan,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Husbands and Wives”) to amazing period pieces (“The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Radio Days,” “Bullets Over Broadway”).
To Sandler’s credit, he has gone beyond the gator-eating swampbillies of “The Waterboy.” But for every “Punch-Drunk Love” there’s a “Mr. Deeds.” For every “Reign Over Me” there’s a “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” For every “Funny People,” there’s ... well, “Funny People.”
In the few interviews he has granted, Sandler seems perfectly content with starring in one semi-romantic comedy/borderline kid flick a year while producing a couple of other comedies for his pals and protgs.
Sandler’s potential to give us more, however, may be the one thing his critics and fans can agree on. The separation between the camps comes in each one’s desire to see what that “more” might be.
His core audience might be fine if that “more” is just more shots to the groin. But the rest of us would like to see him emulate Allen and bring his shtick above the belt to hit the heart and mind, as well.
By Robert W. Butler
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)