Rearview Mirror: “Happy Gilmore”
Reassessing the Sandler arc on his career-defining film’s 25th anniversary.
Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2021. I’m so happy you’re here.
Happy Gilmore isn’t a movie anymore so much as it is the establishment of a type of movie: the Adam Sandler movie. After breaking out on Saturday Night Live, he had a few film roles in Airheads and Coneheads and Mixed Nuts, but none of those scream “Sandler,” none were his project. He wasn’t a movie star until Billy Madison in 1995, and even though it was a box office dud that was pretty much panned, it didn’t matter, because the very next year he released Happy Gilmore, and it was better enough, and did better enough, to launch him.
Then came The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, and Little Nicky. With writing partner Tim Herlihy, an Adam Sandler movie came to be defined by its formula: man-child with one weird skill makes good to impress his family, and gets a hot girl along the way. The casts were always full of familiar faces, the runtime never ran over a hundred minutes. Who could complain? When you sat down for a Sandler picture, you knew exactly what you were getting. If you didn’t want it, you shouldn’t have bought the ticket. Sandler called his production company Happy Madison. He seemed happy to let those first two characters define his brand.
It’s in 2002 that we see the fracturing of what Sandler means, when he starts playing against type, and the discussion of his acting chops is less about what he can do than what he isn’t doing—i.e., look ma, no shtick! That year sees the release of Classic Sandler Mr. Deeds, Serious Art Punch-Drunk Love, and Sandler Passion Project Eight Crazy Nights. Two of these movies pull off what they’re trying to do. One of them is Eight Crazy Nights.
After ’02, it’s a fight. People want to see him stretch himself, and get disappointed when he goes back to the jokes. No, people want jokes, why does he keep taking these sad sack roles? For my money, Fifty First Dates strikes a perfect balance, Funny People is a disappointing miss, and I literally don’t know why Spanglish exists. (Actually, while we’re here, lemme bang out a few more hot takes: Click is weird; That’s My Boy had two funny scenes; I was at least intrigued by The Cobbler, but I might be totally alone in that take.) The “good” movies keep Sandler in Hollywood’s graces: he works with Baumbach and Disney, and I guess the Hotel Transylvania movies make money. But the “bad” movies seem to be really bad…so bad, I haven’t actually seen most of them. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Pixels, The Ridiculous Six, Jack and Jill, eh, I’ll skip ’em.
For all the talk of what Sandler means to his fans or audiences, where his career is headed, and why he makes the choices he does, the man himself seems to give—and I’m not exaggerating—not a single flying fuck. He just does what he feels like doing, and he’s rich as shit, so who cares? For more on that, see last October’s Hubie Halloween (it’s cute!).
His particular trick captured something about late Gen X suburban dissatisfaction that might not resonate with others. Maybe that’s why he’s oddly divisive, for such a nice, likable dude. His fans are fierce; he gets under his detractors’ skin.
After Uncut Gems, it finally became clear that Sandler can pull off pretty much whatever he sets his mind to. So if we aren’t concerned anymore with whether the Sandler persona is or isn’t working, maybe it’s time to ask: How does that formative early stuff even hold up? Taken as a case study for the longevity of Classic Sandman, how do we feel about Happy Gilmore?
Verdict: goofy fun. If I’d somehow missed the past twenty years of pop culture and you showed me Happy Gilmore, about a rageaholic wannabe hockey player who parlays his slaps into a golf career, and told me it was going to launch one of the biggest comedy actors of our time, I’d probably guess no. Not that Sandler isn’t funny, but it’s a little one-note. Watching Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura or Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, you can see the star power leap off the screen. Sandler, actually, turns out to be kind of niche. Yes, complain-y white boys are everywhere, but they aren’t everyone. His particular trick captured something about late Gen X suburban dissatisfaction that might not resonate with others. Maybe that’s why he’s oddly divisive, for such a nice, likable dude. His fans are fierce; he gets under his detractors’ skin.
It’s hard not to compare him to Ben Stiller, who has a small role in Happy Gilmore and a few other Sandler projects. Stiller’s also a funnyman who can play it serious, a non-threatening but still-masculine rom-com lead your boyfriend can root for. As an actor, he’s a live wire, always jumpy and intense. He plays villains and neurotics. He makes extreme eye contact, if there’s such a thing. Sandler, on the other hand, is calm, laughing from the sidelines. It’s the reason his signature screams are funny instead of frightening: the guy’s so clearly chill underneath.
Sandler is calm, laughing from the sidelines. It’s the reason his signature screams are funny instead of frightening: the guy’s so clearly chill underneath.
Wow, I did it again. I found myself talking about The Sandler Of It All when I promised I would unpack Happy Gilmore. Not to give myself an excuse, but maybe that’s because there just isn’t much to say here. He golfs. Chubbs dies. Shooter McGavin is a big old meanie, but Happy buys his grandma’s house back thanks to the power of trick putting. For whatever reason, the line that made me snort-laugh was, “Look at her she’s an old lady, she’s old! You can’t take her stuff, she’s too old!” Sandler just stating the obvious…is funny!
It’s an underdog story, and borrows a few cues from Caddyshack. Update the phones and the clothes and this movie could come out today; it’s a pretty classic set-up. But there are a few nineties-isms that date it, and I don’t mean the “fantasy” sequence of Julie Bowen holding pitchers of beer in lingerie (who cares?). No, the element that felt disconnected from our modern comedic sensibility were the random bursts of violence that punctuate the action. Superstar has a similar thing happening in a flashback. Movies don’t rely on that so much these days; there was a gross-out period, and now it’s more about bodily shock (the breastmilk and tampons in the Neighbors movies, for instance). And maybe it’s just because I watched The Last Dance over the summer, but when Happy signs on as a spokesperson for Subway, which becomes a de facto tie-in in the movie, I felt that was…commentary disguised as product placement? Product placement disguised as commentary? Obviously, athletes still hawk products. But the fact that the whole campaign was a commercial…when’s the last time you watched a commercial?
It was probably the last time you passively and with no intention toward the discourse turned on an Adam Sandler movie. And while we’re asking questions…you eat pieces of shit for breakfast? FL