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.
For today’s entry, I’m joined by Dave Gutierrez — a critic whose work can be found sprinkled throughout Midwest Film Journal — for the first Happy Valley roundtable discussion.
Ben Sears (BS): Dave, thanks a million for not only subjecting yourself to I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, but for taking the time to talk about it. I chose this film as the first roundtable-type essay because I feel like the conversation around the film is much more interesting than the film itself. Maybe that’s just because I’m 15-plus films deep into this grand experiment and have essentially numbed myself to the expectations of a Happy Madison film, or maybe it’s just because the film itself is just so unremarkable (with one large exception, which we’ll absolutely discuss). The jokes are dumb, the characters are razor-thin, the performances are unremarkable and the plot never rises above your typical mid-2000s rom-com fare. Dave, did I leave anything off? Maybe you can start with your own Sandler / Happy Madison history, so the general public can calibrate their tastes to yours.
Dave Gutierrez (DG): Well, like a lot of people, I thought Adam Sandler was hilarious … when I was 12. Fortunately for me, I grew out of that nonsense. Unfortunately for everyone else, Sandler didn’t. Happy Gilmore was probably the most-quoted movie of my high school years — I’m pretty sure I’ve never been golfing with someone my age and not heard “Are you too good for your home?” I’m not sure when the switch flipped, but somewhere around Little Nicky or Big Daddy the shtick got old and it stopped being funny. As far as leaving anything off, you might add the deep and pervasive homophobia, sexism, racism and any-other-ism you can imagine. It’s important to note for the record that this movie isn’t a Blazing Saddles-style satire that just doesn’t play as well in a modern context.
BS: Yes, and that leads us to the heart of the matter: Is it worth getting worked up about the rampant homophobic jokes throughout this film? In the moment, I absolutely found myself disgusted with the sophomoric humor on display. But after giving it some time, I figured: What’s the point? Yes, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is a terrible movie, a black mark on an already-mediocre filmography, but is the film itself worth hating Adam Sandler, Kevin James and everyone else involved — including Alexander Payne (!!!), who co-wrote the screenplay? It’s cliché by this point, but it bears saying: Representation matters. And if millions upon millions of people paid to go see this piece of schlock — which doesn’t waste any opportunities to shoehorn in a stereotype about gay people — a good portion of them are going to come away with the impression that it’s an accurate representation of how gay people look, act and behave. Now that you’ve had some time to let the film marinate in your consciousness, are you still as initially incensed as you were? Is there a version of this film that could have been successful (assuming it were still made by the same people)? I wholeheartedly agree with the comparison to Blazing Saddles, too; to argue that this film was intended as a satire would be a complete stretch of the imagination.
DG: I don’t know if it’s ever worth hating anyone over a movie (besides Tom Hanks), but this one comes close. I was obviously disgusted by it in the moment, but I’ve given it some thought and I think my problems with it endure. Of all things, I think it’s actually the movie’s halfhearted efforts at positivity that really undermine. Sure, Chuck (Sandler) learns that it’s “hurtful” to call people “faggots” and says so right there in the script (Naturally, he learns this only after using the slur a dozen times without any hesitation or judgment, but that’s a tangential point). But imagine a world where all the paunchy, middle-aged ex-frat boys who are fans of Sandler’s movies were actually enlightened on some moral issues from this trash. Isn’t it somehow worse that they (and Sandler and James and Aykroyd, etc.) learn not to say “faggot” but by implication also learn that it’s OK to act disgusted when two men kiss each other? Even without touching the racism and sexism — of which there is plenty — this movie would imply that as long as you don’t drop that F-word, it’s fine to panic and hide yourself in the shower if a homosexual walks in … or to ask a couple of gay men which one is “the chick” … or to joke about sexual assaults in prison as typical homosexual behavior … or to imply that gay men are all preening, promiscuous party animals, etc., etc., etc., ad (complete) nauseum.
BS: I can only imagine the scene in the writers’ room — in which, and I cannot emphasize this enough, Alexander Payne was present! — where they justified Chuck and Larry’s derogatory attitude toward the LGBTQ community by adding in a subplot where Chuck and Larry themselves are “victimized” for their new lifestyle. It’s also important to note that the extent of their victimization is essentially to be kicked out of their weekly basketball games — as if this is akin to a Rain Man or It’s a Wonderful Life-esque redemption story. The problem — among other things — is that you don’t get to present your protagonists or your film as “super woke” when every other character is cringing at every non-heteronormative thing they see. Besides all of that, what makes I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry an utter failure is that nearly every other aspect is half-baked and haphazardly put together. The Jessica Biel subplot feels like it was written by teenage boys who still get nervous whenever a pretty girl approaches. The Happy Madison universe has a long, regrettable track record with female lead characters, but Biel’s is particularly heinous — especially in the finale, when she takes Chuck back because he … I don’t even know … smiles at her? We all knew it was coming and they would end up together, but surely Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (!!!) could’ve come up with a better resolution than that. Was there anything notable to you out of the non-homophobic aspects of the film? Do you think there’s any chance Biel was cast less because of her acting chops (and here I’ll say that I do think she’s a generally underrated actress) and more because Sandler & Co. thought she was a pretty face?
DG: Even besides the homophobia, this one is a mess. For one, we have no meaningful context or evidence as to why why Chuck and Larry’s friendship is so special. We’re just told that it is and therefore everything else makes sense. Same with the basic idea that Chuck is some kind of sex-god ladykiller. Not that I want to get into a debate about Sandler’s cocksmanship, but the movie gives us no reason to buy this bullshit. The jokes don’t land either, even outside of the offensiveness. Trying to get twin sisters to make out? Gross, not funny. A fat guy farting after rolling down the stairs? You could see it coming from miles away. Trying to hide an erection behind a sweatshirt? Nobody had a more original idea? Still, even beyond the paper-thin characters, the premise makes zero sense. Sure, the aggravations of employee-benefits bureaucracy are ripe for comedic rigging, but this investigation and subsequent public trial … for what? Because Larry wants to get fake married to someone so he can change the beneficiary on his pension? Even if we buy that, for comedy’s sake, a fake marriage is the best thing, they’re not taking advantage of anyone or defrauding the system in any meaningful way. At multiple points in the movie, the easiest and most straightforward thing would be for anyone involved to just say “Yeah, never mind, I’ll just fill out some forms and get this insurance thing corrected the long way.” You don’t fake a marriage because you missed open enrollment! As for Biel, this is not her fault. They certainly cast her for some combination of her looks and her willingness to let Sandler use her breasts as a comedy prop. She’s a totally average actress, but in this case it’s not really like she had this great part to work with and missed a layup. Tilda Swinton couldn’t have made anything of this.
BS: By my count, this is at least the second Happy Madison movie where an initial character trait is that a male character is the best lover ever, and it’s far from a coincidence that they’re both Sandler movies (50 First Dates being the other). I had a similar thought while watching regarding the fake marriage: This is the reason they had to do this? Because Larry needs a new beneficiary for his insurance / pension??? Couldn’t they have at least thought of something a little more urgent? Maybe it’s just because I haven’t had a spouse die, but when was the last time anybody had even a passing thought about the subject? And yes, I get it: You need to drum up some kind of drama to keep the protagonists on their toes, but I’ve lost count at this point of the number of these films that have ended in courtroom scenes with a big, emotional speech. The whole film contains all of Sandler’s worst impulses without any sort of filter to sift out all the gay-panic jokes — a facet that was already noticeable in nearly every previous film in which he’s starred.
I really didn’t want to review this movie, even when I saw it coming down the road after the onset of this project. I had vague memories of renting and hating it when it first came out, and those feelings have not changed with time. What gives me at least a little bit of comfort is that the majority of critics and audiences felt the same way (the film has a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 37 score on Metacritic). What I am legitimately curious about is how those involved feel about it now. Even Rob Schneider took a hard look at himself and his career after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. How do you think Sandler & Co. regard the film today? What do you think the film’s lasting legacy is, if there is one at all? Are there any other aspects of the film we’ve neglected to mention?
DG: It’s a relief that the critics share our distaste for this trash, but it’s not like Sandler’s ever been a critical darling (at least in his straight-ahead comic roles). Based on his continued commitment to sophomoric, stereotype-based humor, I’m guessing he’s not taking much of the criticism to heart. I hope some of the others do, though. I am sure that Payne’s original screenplay was also problematic — as we’ve been over, there’s not much of anything redeemable here — but I’m also sure it suffered immensely from Sandler’s heavy hand on rewrites. I just can’t imagine Payne writing the scene where the housekeeper wakes up in bed between Chuck and Larry.
That scene is a perfect example of how much this is a Sandler movie and not a Payne movie. And also how badly it fails as a movie, period. It’s a totally random, absurd little scene — the kind that fit perfectly in Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore — but is just completely incoherent here. It’s a dumb joke for a cheap laugh — haha, they had sex with the unattractive lady, HUH-larious — but this isn’t that kind of movie. That is, it’s totally the kind of meanspirited, juvenile movie where conventionally unattractive people are the target of all kinds of jokes, but it’s not the kind of movie where you can throw in a random one-off joke like that and think no one will notice. You want to randomly drop a Chris Farley striptease or a giant penguin into one of those zany nonsense comedies? No problem. But this is ostensibly a plot grounded in realism of some kind. In this movie, it’s not an easy laugh.
Also, I know we’ve been hammering on the homophobia and misogyny pretty hard here, but can we take a second to mention the inherent cruelty of the way they treat Larry’s son in this thing? That really made me mad.
BS: Larry’s son felt especially heinous and unnecessary to me as well, much more than any of the adult-oriented humor. I don’t like applying today’s politics to films of the past, but I don’t think I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is an instance where this applies. Even by 2007 standards, the idea that boys should be raised to play sports and shoot guns and that any embrace of musicals or dancing or anything traditionally seen as feminine would make him “lesser than” is cheap and outdated. Even more egregious is that it negates a similar young male character in The Hot Chick who enjoys dressing up in girl’s clothes and putting on makeup, and who ends up becoming a sympathetic ally in the end. I don’t think it makes me a liberal snowflake to think that Larry’s — or Chuck’s, for that matter — treatment of his own kid makes him an unsympathetic character. To write a character like that is to use him as a prop to make Larry’s growth over the course of the movie feel more tangible, but it’s just poorly and crudely executed.
Wrapping up, does this change at all how you feel about Sandler or James? Will you check out any of their inevitable future collaborations on Netflix or otherwise? This is the first entry in this series involving James, so I’m excited to explore what he brings to the table even if it will, inevitably, just be a bunch of fat jokes.
DG: As a parent especially, the way Larry (whom we’re meant to see as this struggling but dedicated father, mind you) treats his son is so deeply unsettling. It’s not even just the idea that his son’s behavior is somehow “feminine,” though that’s obviously a big problem. It’s more that Larry passively accepts Chuck’s mockery of his son without a response. When he does get riled about it, it’s not that he’s defending his kid that he loves to death, it’s that he’s upset that Chuck is insulting his own manhood by extension. It’s just gross and so completely unnecessary. There’s nothing more trite and tired than “manly man dad learns to love and appreciate effeminate son,” and they don’t even try to give it a veneer of genuine character development. Other stories have done the same shtick better and with way more heart and sincerity.
I was a pretty unlikely target for another James / Sandler collaboration anyway, but if there’s something about this particular movie that puts me off of them completely, it would have to be that sense of cruelty. I’ve got no problem with irreverence. I don’t even have a problem with some juvenile humor in the right context. It’s the meanness that gets me, the constantly punching down. That’s just not a type of humor that works for me. There’s so much content out there to consume, I can’t see wasting more time on these two.
BS: Well, consider yourself lucky that you’re not on the hook for another 30ish more films that, so far, have not strayed far from the same basic template. I’m curious what the youth of today think of a film like this. I’ll readily admit my sense of humor was much less sophisticated then, for lack of a better word, but I can only hope to think I would’ve been just as bored to watch this film at 16 as I am today. Part of me is glad that I couldn’t find any recent interviews with Sandler or James on the subject, and part of me is a little mad that nobody has held them accountable for this garbage. Another part of me is mad that I forced myself to talk about this movie and give it even more coverage than it deserves. But as I’ve said before, I am nothing if not a completionist. Regardless, thanks again for your insights. Much like Chuck and Larry themselves, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve effectively solved homophobia. Congratulations to us.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: As if this film wasn’t problematic enough, Tila Tequila shows up, as one among a group of sexy cheerleaders who can’t get enough of Sandler.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. The confrontation outside Biel’s fundraiser event is vintage Sandler posturing as the woke ally who’s still kind of an asshole.
- Fart Joke Counter: One very dumb, very unnecessary fart joke from an obese man.
- The Walkout Test: I’m not touching this one with a 50-foot pole.
- NEXT TIME: I attempt to convince the world — and myself — that Strange Wilderness is funny.