Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company — Happy Madison Productions — as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, Sandler has slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of his big-budget studio comedies, some of which seem to be thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will Ben Sears retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join him and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
Before sitting down to watch Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (for the first time, I might add), I was wracking my brain to remember any of Rob Schneider’s memorable moments from his tenure on Saturday Night Live. He was a cast member for four years, so surely he had at least a handful of skits worth remembering. Yes, he had a signature catch-phrase as the “making copies” guy. But I could not, for the life of me, remember anything more he did. This isn’t to say he wasn’t funny on the show but rather that he was simply overshadowed by the likes of such castmates as Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, Chris Rock and the like. So why give Schneider his own star vehicle as the first feature of the newly formed Happy Madison Productions?
To be generous, Schneider was really the best man for the job (not to mention a co-writer of the script, with Harris Goldberg). Sandler would be too silly and Spade too mean, but Schneider has the right mix of puppy-dog eyes and grunginess to make Deuce Bigalow a character by whom to be grossed out but with whom to also sympathize. I was frankly surprised by Schneider’s gift for physical humor in Bigalow, something he didn’t display much of on SNL. While he doesn’t have Sandler’s knack for childishly flailing around, the film requires plenty of pratfalls and goofs — most of which Schneider nails.
All of this is to say that Bigalow still mostly aims for the lowest common denominator when trying to mine for jokes. There are a handful of moments when the script actually subverts expectations and feels clever. But for the most part, the humor comes from low-hanging fruit with setups that rarely pay off. Too often, the source of the humor is some form of “other-ism” — where we’re meant to laugh at people seen as abnormal simply because they’re abnormal. This is essentially the basis for the entire second act, in which Deuce must “he-bitch” (gross) himself out to any paying client. The targets of these jokes? Fat people, narcoleptics, blind people, people with fake limbs and excessively tall people. The latter of which felt most heinous in that every time she is on screen, off-screen onlookers are shouting obscenities directly at her. Oh, and each of these “others” is a female character. Not that any of the male characters are painted with a rosy brush, but it feels unnecessarily cruel; the point is to laugh at them, not with them. Take Arija Bareikis’s Kate, for example. We know that once Deuce falls for her, there will be a shoe to drop and something revealed about her character that makes her insecure. And yes, I do believe that real people with real prosthetic limbs most likely do feel some insecurities while dating. But the real goal of the reveal is to make Deuce a more sympathetic protagonist, as if accepting her is the ultimate act of humanity … and to make for a funny prop later in the film. But to give Kate some kind of physical deficiency feels especially cheap rather than giving her some kind of dark, unsavory backstory.
In the hands of a better team, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo could have been a subversive, gender-flipped take on Pretty Woman. I’m legitimately surprised there weren’t more overt references to be seen here. Then again, if you’re looking for subversive comedy, Happy Madison is not the first place I’d suggest looking.
1999 was a notoriously incredible year for movies; some would argue it was one of the best ever. And thanks to Happy Madison, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo was released the same year as instant classics like The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense and more. Sandler’s own film Big Daddy — in which Schneider makes an appearance, of course — premiered earlier that year and while Bigalow was similarly dismissed from a critical perspective, the former wasn’t as widely reviled as the latter. But what’s the worse outcome in the long run — to have a film make over $200 million at the box office while having a minimal pop culture footprint or making $92 million and being remembered for offensive stupidity?
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: It was a joy to see Amy Poehler in one of her first film roles, as one of Deuce’s oddball dates. Thankfully, it feels like she gets more screen time than the others.
- Fart Joke Counter: By my count, there’s only four but they all happen during one scene. And all completely superfluous, in my opinion, as the scene between Schneider and his dad (Richard Riehle) is one of the
funniest of the film.
- The Walkout Test: Easy Fail. The first moment where Schneider ogles the pet store girl would be a nail in the coffin, but Poehler’s shtick is a definitive death blow.