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Adam Sandler Needs Some Help

‘The Do-Over,’ Sandler’s second Netflix film, is what happens when a successful artist is given lots of money and very little direction. We all deserve better.

Elias Stein

There’s a new Adam Sandler movie out. It’s called The Do-Over. Chances are, you’ve heard of it. Like 81.5 million of us worldwide, you likely subscribe to Netflix, which has been streaming the movie exclusively since last Friday. Chances are, because it was a string of days ending in “-y,” you logged onto the platform in that time and were confronted with the associated ad — and with Sandler, more tanned and sharper-jawed and altogether more svelte than you probably remember. (Chances are it’s been a while.) Netflix is currently streaming 10 Adam Sandler movies, comprising some of his best and many more of his worst efforts, to say nothing of the occasional “I forgot about that” (Mr. Deeds) or “He was in that?” (Hotel Transylvania 2). It’s more than enough for a dutiful marathon, which might explain why Sandler’s career and fame have persisted despite his apparent efforts to sabotage them. He’s simply there.

That’s good news for Netflix, which in 2014 signed a four-movie deal with Sandler and his production company, Happy Madison, on the promise of his appeal to couch potatoes worldwide. The Do-Over marks the deal’s halfway point, quick on the heels of the first entry, last year’s infamous but tepid The Ridiculous 6. For the record, The Do-Over is neither better nor especially worse than that movie. Also for the record, this doesn’t matter. Adam Sandler’s persistence, such as it is, travels free of the quality of the movies he stars in, some of the best of which have made as little money and received as little attention as the worst. But again: doesn’t matter. On Netflix, no one can hear you scream. If The Do-Over flops by that site’s metric, which has always been a closely-guarded secret, no one will know but Sandler and Co. Netflix, persistently close-lipped, won’t snitch.

That’s mafia-grade protection for a man who needs it. At the very least, Sandler has been rescued from box office scrutiny. At the very most, he’s been given artistic freedom. Netflix seems to be letting him do what he wants, and do it for a substantial audience so overwhelmed with new content that it may not even notice his fuck-ups. It’s perfect. There’s a chance for Sandler to do good, interesting work — with the benefit that misfires can quickly, quietly disappear. But there’s also a chance for Sandler to do what Sandler often does — even in 2016, even in the best possible circumstances. He phones it in.

The Do-Over’s premise is your typical odd-couple fare with a few cute and a few less-cute variations. In one corner, there’s David Spade as Charlie, a middle-aged sad sack who’s going nowhere — Spade’s kind of guy. In the other corner, there’s Charlie’s childhood friend Max (Sandler), who’s also a failure, but who arrives at their high school reunion as a seemingly successful stud. Charlie is attracted to Max’s seemingly free-spirited, unbounded lifestyle. Though he doesn’t know it, the reverse equation proves attractive, too: Max needs a favor, and he’ll depend on Charlie’s pathetic despair to get it. Max, being an Adam Sandler character, gets himself and Charlie entangled in an unappealingly complicated plot involving fake identities, a pharmaceutical scandal, cancer, a crazy ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn), a sweet young widow (Paula Patton), and Luis Guzmán’s ball sweat. That’s more or less it. To say that hilarity ensues wouldn’t really be accurate — it’s an Adam Sandler movie released in 2016. To its credit, it avoids the familiar Sandlerisms of the ’90s — cry-singing through Madonna’s “Holiday” in The Wedding Singer, roasting a stuttering third grader in Billy Madison. To its detriment, it avoids humor, too.

No surprise there, right? Given Sandler’s track record of late, this was bound to be the case: His own movies cannot seem to get a good handle on who he is nowadays, perhaps because who he is rings clearest when he leaves it to smart directors to tell him who to be. We used to look to this guy to play the imp in his comedy. That was enough. We could depend on him for adult mischief, for overgrown temper tantrums, for a frustrating inability to make his overactive id and his manhood successfully coexist. He had his man-child era — Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky — but he’s been phasing this out for some time. He hasn’t always known what to replace it with. Judd Apatow noticed as much, which is what made Sandler the ideal lead for Funny People, a film about a successful, Sandleresque comedian who, lonely and listless in the midst of a career peak, finds out he’s dying. Comedy and pathos are as built into the role as they are into his Droopy the dog–like face. They’re not clever or sentimental addendums to the prefabricated emotional turns of the plot; they’re the subject of the movie, as much a part of the character Sandler plays as they are a part of his own persona.

Perhaps it takes a fan of Sandler’s humor to understand how it might be adapted to fit the broader world that a movie demands. Watching some of his best movies from the past 15 years — movies like Funny People, Spanglish (James L. Brooks), and Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson) — you learn what can happen when he isn’t left to his own devices but is rather forced, by directors, to confront his potential. This even distinguishes his beloved performances in movies with less arthouse cred, stuff like The Wedding Singer and even embarrassments like the recent Tom McCarthy flop The Cobbler, which has a leg up on The Do-Over if only for making Sandler go to unexpected (and, fine, largely unwelcome) places. In his best performances, he can be silly, sure, but also soulful, or shy, or fitfully and unpredictably angry. As ridiculous as it sounds, Sandler has an Old World weariness that has crept into his work since the beginning, or at least seemed to, perhaps because he’s a comedian and we often think of comedy as compensation for some unseen realm of ugly feelings. The enjoyable childishness of Sandler’s earliest roles, on SNL and elsewhere, often seemed to imply their own shaded undercurrents.

The Do-Over both continues his break from outright silliness and tries to reap the benefits of work done by better directors in better movies. (This one’s directed by the screenwriter Steven Brill, most famous for writing the Mighty Ducks trilogy.) Like the comedian Sandler plays in Funny People, the character Max has a fatal revelation up his sleeve, and the movie goes out of its way to make us reconsider blatant signs of Max’s hidden depths after the fact.

It’s a lazy device, but it suggests that Sandler and his moneymen at least know what makes him appealing. What they don’t know is how to manufacture a movie that makes worthwhile use of this appeal. He’s a talent whose best films hint at a comedian, a man, far more interesting than the one we’ve been getting lately. That he can’t save this particular movie is no shock. And that Netflix — attempting to sell itself as a plausible alternative to the Hollywood studio system — might prefer to attract other artists by appearing to keep its hands off the reins, is no surprise, either. But shouldn’t Sandler try to save himself? He’s forged a deal that gives him the chance, and the platform, to prove himself anew. When will he take it?