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 as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming 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 I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
Look, I consider myself to be an optimistic person. I try to find something positive in even the worst situations. Example: Working from home and quarantining has given me a great opportunity to finish some home improvement projects that I had been putting off. I’ve known plenty of pessimistic people in my lifetime, and they’re no fun to be around. I hope the day never comes when I come across an unsavory piece of news and, by default, think of the negative connotations.
All of this is to say that The Master of Disguise is an utter and complete failure of a movie. Coming from an optimist, that’s a grim indictment for a film. On paper, it makes sense why this film got the green light: Take an element or two away from any previous Happy Madison film and it could easily be construed as a silly adventure for kids. Add in a game-for-anything Dana Carvey and you’ve got an easy formula for success. Carvey was never afraid to go big with his most iconic characters from Saturday Night Live, but they were also at least grounded enough to not feel like mere excuses for silly voices.
Pistachio Disguisey (groan) is not a character. He solely exists for Carvey to do silly voices. On its face, that is not a bad thing! Carvey loves to do impressions and he’s great at them! Also: Extensive, peer-reviewed research has proven that kids, more than anyone else, love a silly voice. No, the biggest problem with Master is that, at virtually every turn, it values spectacle over virtually every other aspect — including humor — and the spectacles are never all that spectacular.
There are, of course, ways to make an over-the-top kids movie without plumbing the depths to which Master descends. Just look to the same calendar year and you’ll find another kid’s film like Scooby Doo that, while still a bad film, at least manages to know what it’s trying to do. Plus, at least the latter’s cast has a semblance of chemistry together as opposed to the gathering of warm bodies Master throws together to react to Carvey’s pratfalls.
We’ve talked in this column about David Spade striking it out on his own under the Happy Madison banner, and it seems like Carvey’s goal with Master of Disguise was to do something similar for a more contemporary audience that didn’t remember Opportunity Knocks or Clean Slate from the 1990s. After the mega-hit that was Wayne’s World, Mike Myers had the financially unsuccessful (but generally beloved) So I Married An Axe Murderer. But then he hit it big with the Austin Powers and Shrek franchises. Nobody can blame Carvey for wanting to do the same with his own career at that same time; after all, he’s secretly the glue that holds the Wayne’s World franchise together. Look at them on equal footing, and Carvey had just as much potential as Myers at that point. The problem is that, as Myers struck it big with Austin Powers, Carvey’s previous breakout attempts registered below 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, and his effort at the same with Disguise yielded a 1% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 12 on MetaCritic.
Carvey is an improviser extraordinaire, and there are clearly moments where he was free to let loose and have fun. But those moments don’t serve to liven up the film when it gets stale. Jim Carrey was reportedly considered for the role of Pistachio Disguisey (still groaning at that name), and I don’t know that the casting would have made a difference in the outcome of the film. Carrey certainly brings more heightened energy to every role he’s in, but the film just has too many larger issues to overcome.
In case you’re doubting my optimist credentials, there is a moment early on when I marveled at the quality of the set design and there are certainly inventive flourishes throughout. None of this should come as a surprise, though, as director Perry Andelin Blake was primarily a production designer for a majority of Adam Sandler’s films. Even the hokey setting of the final confrontation is colorful and eye-catching.
Master‘sbiggest sin is that it’s a boat without a rudder. Too guileless to be an adult comedy but not simple enough to be a children’s film, its target demographic is unclear. Cynical studio executives believe that the key to making a kid’s film that appeals to adults is to shoehorn in as many pop-culture references as possible, and this film has that in spades regardless of whether they make any internal sense (or are funny).
Maybe I’m being overly grouchy. The real test is to show it to an audience of kids and gauge their reactions, right? I would have my 5-year old — who loves silly pratfalls as much as any kid — watch the film to observe his opinion, but I’m afraid that may be classified as emotional abuse.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Kenan Thompson has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance late in the film, but I’m going with another pick for this spot. IMDb reveals that not only were Cole and Dylan Sprouse (Big Daddy, etc.) cast as young Pistachio, but Naya Rivera (RIP) is one of three actors as “Captain America Kid”!
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. I’ve already written about Happy Madison’s template for female casting, but Jennifer Esposito’s entire presence feels like something Sandler and company tossed in at the last minute. Every comedy as silly as this one needs a straight-man (or -woman) to ground the action, but Esposito’s character contributes so little to the plot that she essentially exists to be a pretty face over whom every male character can fawn. Even during the climactic battle scene, she literally just stands in the background – in a skimpy dress, no less.
- Fart Joke Counter: 9, each with diminishing returns. You see, Brent Spiner’s character uncontrollably farts every time he maniacally laughs. For his efforts, Spiner was nominated for a Nickelodeon Kids ‘Choice Award for “Best Fart in a Movie”! Sadly, he lost out to Matthew Lillard in Scooby Doo.
- The Walkout Test: This may be the easiest Pass so far.
- The entirety of the film’s soundtrack is garbage, but the song over the opening credits kinda slaps!
- UP NEXT: After conquering every other form of media, Adam Sandler tries his hand at animation (see what I did there?) in Eight Crazy Nights.