Critic's Notebook: 'Pixels’ Puts Final Nail in Adam Sandler's Creative Coffin

Pixels Still 6 - H 2015
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Pixels Still 6 - H 2015

Currently hip comic performers like Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lena Dunham and Melissa McCarthy make Adam Sandler look dumb and dated in comparison — but he's been making this bed for himself for a long time.

What went wrong?

Adam Sandler's name on a film was never a guarantee of either yuks or bucks, but once upon a time — back when Saturday Night Live's Opera Man was transitioning to the big screen in occasionally charming fare like The Wedding Singer — it inspired more hope than dread. Today, with Pixels getting burnt by critics and his latest moneymaking enterprise, Grown Ups, a twofer of nearly unbelievable badness, the contemporary comedy scene is passing him by. Those of us who used to see his films willingly might ask what was different then.

The most obvious answer is that Sandler's early work relied heavily on a kid-like buffoonery that simply doesn't age well. Few American performers have been able to ride childish cuteness far into middle age. Worse for Sandler, by the mid-2000s moviegoers were meeting a new breed of man-child that had more to offer: Some (Will Ferrell) were so imaginative they could seem more like surrealist performance artists than comedians; some (Seth Rogen) simply were better suited to the quick, quippy, improvisational requirements of the Apatow Age. Suddenly Sandler's mush-mouth and "who, me?" faces didn't look so funny anymore.

Moreover, just being an A-list clown came to seem insufficient. Sandler did stand-up early on, but not enough to develop the kind of perspective Louis C.K. or, more recently, Amy Schumer did. He has co-written some of his material, but never had a voice as distinctive as Tina Fey or Amy Poehler — much less the confidence to create a whole world as a writer-director, as Lena Dunham has. He stagnated, opening the door for other non-auteur performers like Melissa McCarthy to step in and steal his thunder. A careful reader might notice a gender trend here. Turns out that women are funny; men who see women as they tend to be in Sandler films, less so. Sandler's predicament started long before the current crop of comedy stars got hot and hip; their smarts and ability to tap into the Zeitgeist make him look dumb and dated, but he's been making this bed for himself for a long time.

As Sandler tried to move beyond playing emotionally stunted young men, he rarely had good help. Teaming with P.T. Anderson for 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, he seemed to have found a smart path: Take the bottled-up rage and hurt that had often been the subtext of his performances and call them to the surface. That picture earned just over a 10th of what The Waterboy did, but instead of using it as creative, if not commercial, fuel, Sandler responded by making the witless Anger Management with Peter Segal, one of a handful of mediocre directors — others being Dennis Dugan, Steven Brill, and Frank Coraci — who appear to know they can keep working for Sandler so long as they don't ask him to do anything new.

Since Punch-Drunk Love, every time the actor has stepped out of his comfort zone and failed to be rewarded at the box office — working with James L. Brooks on Spanglish or his old roomie Judd Apatow on Funny People, dealing with 9/11 trauma to powerful effect in Reign Over Me — he has rebounded with lowest-common-denominator fare like I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Cheap caricature and toilet humor abound in these outings, and it's a rare moment indeed (say, his outlandish Israeli commando-turned-hairstylist in You Don't Mess with the Zohan) in which Sandler allows himself to be the butt of a joke. (Is it a coincidence that Zohan was co-written by Apatow, who offered Sandler such an excellent opportunity for self-criticism in Funny People?) By the time he got around to making Tom McCarthy's The Cobbler last year, the writer-director of the reflective, nuanced The Station Agent and The Visitor found himself using paper-thin racial stereotypes as key plot ingredients so Sandler's audience wouldn't drift off.

Indeed, lazy choices and diminishing returns have characterized Sandler's career since his first hits. Having discovered unexpected rom-com chemistry with Drew Barrymore in The Wedding Singer, he went back to the well twice. Alas, the two were not their generation's Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, much less Tracy & Hepburn. 50 First Dates certainly had its moments, and might have worked in hands more capable than Segal's; but practically nobody bought Blended. The pairing had just grown too awkward: Barrymore's persistent charm onscreen makes it too obvious that Sandler has lost almost every ounce of his.

Things don't look to be improving. Sandler's jokes have grown even cruder and his tone more bullying; he continues to cling to a juvenile boys-versus-girls mentality even while claiming to espouse family values; and he seems wholly uninterested in learning anything about the kinds of people in the world who aren't almost exactly like himself. The comedian's refusal to engage the world around him has become almost perverse. Except in the most superficial ways ("kids these days, with the texting and the videogames!"), Sandler shows no interest in a society that has changed quite a lot since he was on Saturday Night Live (contrast this with his SNL pal Chris Rock). Sandler's seeming indifference to racial sensitivities, which led to several Native American actors walking off the set of his upcoming Western The Ridiculous 6, is only the most obvious manifestation of this.

One suspects the way for Adam Sandler to rehabilitate himself is to spend several years doing nothing but other people's movies, taking advice from talented people instead of hacks, and not looking at the grosses. To work at being a bright point in ambitious pictures, and not rebounding to Doofusville — even if, like the recent Men, Women & Children, they fail.

He can afford it.