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.
Now feels like as good of an opportunity as ever to check back in with Happy Madison and its relationship with women. When we last discussed it at length, the production company was still in its infancy and routinely scraping the bottom of B- and C-lists of actresses* to fill its rosters. Somewhere around the mid-2000s, bigger names and bigger roles were handed out, including past and future Oscar winners. Some actresses — like Salma Hayek, Maya Rudolph and Drew Barrymore — have even returned for various films. I don’t doubt that Adam Sandler, David Spade, Kevin James, et al. are a pleasure to work with on set. I also don’t doubt that a role in a Happy Madison film brings the prospect of a big payday (still waiting for confirmation of what Sandler gifted his female co-stars after the success of Grown Ups) or, at the very least, an exotic vacation. So how has the production company fared in the intervening years regarding its depiction of women? Has it evolved by creating fresh, nuanced roles? Believe it or not, 2016’s The Do-Over may hold the key to answering these burning questions.
There is, undoubtedly, plenty to dissect in Adam Sandler and David Spade’s action-comedy — their second film under the HM Netflix deal. For instance, the film is remarkably light on outlandish comedic moments and its action set-pieces aren’t terribly spectacular. Rather, The Do-Over places a surprising amount of emphasis on its twisty, intriguing plot, something that’s rarely been a high priority for the production company since its inception. And unlike previous R-rated efforts and The Ridiculous 6, this film takes advantages of its lack of oversight and piles on the raunchiness. If there’s one aspect of The Do-Over to be impressed by, it’s the script (written by Kevin Barnett and Chris Pappas) and the way it reveals its story. Far too often, a Happy Madison film can be easily mapped out to the end from the moment the central premise reveals itself. The Do-Over managed to leave me guessing where it was going — not from Sandler and Spade’s bro-centric exploits, but from one story beat to the next. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for how it handles its depictions of women.
With the rare exceptions of The House Bunny and, yes, Strange Wilderness, the role of a woman in a Happy Madison film is that of the romantic lead. Every once in a while, that role is expanded and an actress can make the role likable and fun. But more often than not, her role is shoehorned in and her actions are barely justified. Paula Patton’s character as a grieving widow / villain in The Do-Over leans closer towards the latter until the finale, when her ultimate motivations are revealed. Does her exposure as the villain make her earlier, thinly drawn shadings more forgivable? Yes and no. From the moment she’s introduced, we’re expected to believe her affections for Spade are authentic despite an utter lack of characterization. For that, I credit Patton’s dedication to her performance. Until the aforementioned reveal, Patton’s character befalls the same fate as Brooklyn Decker, or Jennifer Aniston for that matter, in Just Go With It, Rosario Dawson in Zookeeper, Linda Cardellini in Grandma’s Boy and virtually every other female lead from Deuce Bigalow to Click: She exists to fall in love because the plot necessitates it.
It is refreshing to see a female villain portrayed in a Happy Madison film rather than some middle-aged Colin Quinn-type who’s been holding a grudge against the protagonist. Surely, though, Patton’s character could have existed as a villain while still feeling like a real person with real thoughts and feelings, rather than a prop — in a low-cut dress, of course — after whom Sandler and Spade could lust. That Patton’s final moment is a cat-fight with Kathryn Hahn just reminds us that any semblance of distinction in a HM film will always be short-lived. How low have my expectations sunk when I was simply grateful that it didn’t end in a bikini-clad mud-wrestling match?
And now we’ve come to every other female character type in The Do-Over — and, by extension, every other HM film. Natasha Leggero stars as Spade’s wife, introduced as a drunk who’s unabashedly cheating on Spade and openly antagonistic towards him in general. Hahn, who can somehow make one-note material like this feel like it’s not below her, plays Sandler’s supposedly psychotic ex-girlfriend. Catherine Bell and Jackie Sandler play Sandler and Spade’s neighbors, who eventually hook up with Spade. And that’s not including the extras and B-roll background women who solely appear to receive some leers. I’d include references to past examples of these character types throughout the Happy Valley, but it would surely be more succinct to include any films that don’t fit this mold.
Is Patton’s character the pinnacle of complexity that we’ll encounter before the end of this project? Will the impending #MeToo reckoning make any impact whatsoever on Happy Madison’s films going forward? We’ve been fooled before whenever Sandler has turned in a good performance or a good film, so who’s to say if one or two positive films will indicate a fresh way of thinking in this regard? As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 39 times, shame on me.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Can Matt Walsh’s role be classified as a cameo? Regardless, he’s my pick this week, as he was consistently hilarious as one of my favorite cast members on Veep, one of my favorite comedies, and he’s hilarious in his small role here.
- Just Go With It – The Happy Madison Promise: Even in its more adult-centric comedies, Happy Madison has handled its violence with kid gloves. Here, a man gets shot in both kneecaps and continues on, largely unfettered. Later, Patton gets hit from behind by an RV, gets up without a scratch on her and shakes it off as “just a bruise.”
- Fart Joke Counter: None! However, there are plenty of shots of male butts and genitalia.
- The Walkout Test: Fail. This movie would be turned off immediately after the Spade / Luis Guzman / Catherine Bell threesome.
- NEXT TIME: To fully comprehend Sandy Wexler is to unlock the secrets of the universe. Tune in next week as I try to do so!
*This is in no way a reflection on acting abilities but rather a lack of name recognition and future career prospects.