Total Recall

Total Recall: Adam Sandler’s Worst to Best

Which movies tickled the critics' medulla oblongata?

by | June 4, 2008

This week,

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan
, the tale of a Mossad agent who goes
undercover as a hairdresser, hits theaters. Adam Sandler’s latest inspired us
here at RT to take a closer look at the career of one of recent cinema’s most
popular comic actors.

Though he’s won plenty of affection from his work on Saturday Night Live
and his cheerfully lowbrow films, Sandler has never been a critics’ darling.
However, to his legion of fans, Sandler’s movies are like a warm blanket;
playing lovable wiseguys, surrounded by oddball friends (usually Rob Schneider,
Steve Buscemi, Allen Covert, and the late, great Chris Farley), the Sandman
mixes potty humor and pathos with aplomb. And as his career has evolved, Sandler
has won praise for attempting to stretch his on-screen persona into more
difficult territory, depicting emotionally troubled, vulnerable characters with
strength and depth. Check out our retrospective of Sandler’s career, counting
down from his worst-reviewed movie to his best.




more info…
18.
Bulletproof
(1996)

Tomatometer: 8%
Box office: $21.1 million

Bulletproof stars Sandler as Archie, a hood working for a
drug kingpin. His best friend Jack (Damon Wayans) is an undercover cop, looking
to bust up the whole enterprise. After Jack tries to arrest Archie, he’s shot in
the head; Archie eventually skips town, but decides to testify against his boss,
so Jack agrees to escort him cross country. Together, the two must outwit a
group of assassins while working out their hostilities. Like 48 Hours, Bulletproof
was designed as a vehicle for a young comedian (in this case, two young
comedians) to break into action-buddy-comedy territory.

However, the result was
the worst-reviewed film of Sandler’s career; critics pegged it as middling and
predictable, despite a few funny moments. “A few stray laughs here and there,
but both comedians have done a whole lot better,” wrote Scott Weinberg of efilmcritic.com.






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17.
Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights

(2002)

Tomatometer: 13%
Box office: $23.3 million

Why should Christian kids have all the fun? In celebrating his Jewish heritage,
Sandler has made contributions to seasonal merriment both sublime (“The
Chanukah Song”) and forgettable (Eight Crazy Nights). The latter, an
animated musical, written, produced, and featuring voice work from the Sandman,
tells the tale of Davey, a drunken misanthrope who becomes a youth basketball
coach to satisfy his community service requirements. Under the guidance of
kindly old Whitey and Eleanore, Davey learns a thing or two about the holiday
spirit — but not before wreaking havoc on his small town.

Indeed, critics
found Eight Crazy Nights to be less than heartwarming; David Keyes of Cinephille.org
called it “a shallow, crude, mean-spirited and painfully unfunny excursion into
lunacy.”




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16.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
(2007)

Tomatometer: 14%
Box office: $119.4 million

Sandler’s critics have asserted the star wants to have his
cake and eat it too — to make broad, politically incorrect comedies that end
on a note of uplift and decency (some would say sappiness). That charge was
levied with particular force at I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a
tale of two New York firefighters that pretend to be gay in order to qualify
for domestic partnership benefits. Straight dudes Chuck (Sandler) and Larry
(Kevin James) are initially squeamish, but maintain the façade of couple-hood
as questions are raised about their arrangement. As the pair is shunned and
treated to homophobic insults, they become better people in the process.

Still,
critics were unmoved: “The film is pro-gay but it’s less interested in
collapsing straight-male hang-ups about gay men than it is in putting on a
surprisingly mawkish show of political correctness,” wrote Ed Gonzalez of Slant
Magazine
.






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15.
Mr. Deeds
(2002)

Tomatometer: 22%
Box office: $126.2 million

A loose remake of the Frank Capra classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr.
Deeds
stars Sandler as a small-town New Hampshirite who learns an uncle he
never met has willed him $40 billion. This fish-out-of-water comedy finds
Sandler in familiar territory, as the decent, down-to-earth everyman who goes up
against the snobs — in this case, the associates of his uncle who are angling
for his empire. Winona Ryder also stars as a tabloid reporter who wants the
scoop on the hickish Deeds — until she falls for him.

It’s tough to measure up
to the work of a legend like Capra (or Gary Cooper, who played the title role in
the original), but the pundits were particularly uncharitable to Mr. Deeds,
calling it bland, sappy, and overly violent. “I can’t recommend it except to die-hard Sandler fans, and even they will have to
admit that this is one of his lesser efforts,” wrote Kevin N. Laforest of Montreal
Film Journal
.





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14.
Little Nicky
(2000)

Tomatometer: 22%
Box office: $38.5 million

Coming on the heels of the robust commercial success of Big Daddy, Little
Nicky
brought the moviegoing public’s love affair with Sandler to a
temporary halt. Playing the kindly spawn of Satan, Sandler’s Nicky was one of
the actor’s more extreme grotesques; his lurching gait, twisted face, and
autistic growl were more akin to the Hunchback of Notre Dame than Billy Madison.
When the devil (Harvey Keitel) decides to continue his reign over the
underworld, his two more diabolical sons plot against him, using Nicky to bring
Hell to Earth. But the decent-hearted Nicky works to thwart their plans, with
the help of a pair of knuckle-headed metalheads.

Little Nicky enjoys a
poor rep within the Sandler cult, but it has some inspired bit parts, including
Reese Witherspoon as a ditzy angel, Quentin Tarantino as a deranged street
preacher, and Ozzy Osbourne re-enacting his real-life bat’s-head biting antics.
“In place of Sandler’s usual character-driven humor, we get questionable special
effects,” wrote Todd Anthony of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.






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13.
Airheads
(1994)

Tomatometer: 23%
Box office: $5.3 million

In Airheads, one of his first starring roles, Sandler plays Pip, the
drummer for stoopidly-monikered band the Lone Rangers. Brendan Fraser and Steve
Buscemi also star as a struggling hard rock group that wants its demo tape to be
heard so badly that it holds the employees of a local rock radio station
hostage. As word of the situation spreads, the band finally gets attention from
record labels, rock fans — and the police.

Though it features an excellent
supporting cast (including Chris Farley, Joe Mantegna, Michael McKean, Michael
Richards, and Ernie Hudson), Airheads was deflated by the critics: “Observing how fertile the field of heavy metal music is for satire, it’s
disappointing to watch Airheads bumble around, desperately trying to find
something funny to say.” Still, Sandler attracted some notice for his
performance; Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called him “a red-hot screen
find.”




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12.
The Waterboy
(1998)

Tomatometer: 30%
Box office: $161.4 million

A mash-up of SNL faves Cajun Man and Canteen Boy,
Bobby Boucher is a put-upon, socially awkward 31-year-old who takes an unpaid
gig as the waterboy for a third-rate college football squad. He’s had
experience carrying water for other clubs, but Coach Klein (Henry Winkler)
thinks his bottomless anger might be more of an asset on the gridiron. With the
words of his overprotective mother (Kathy Bates) and the cruelty of his former
employers providing fuel, Bobby distributes bone-crushing hits and helps make
the team respectable.

Easily Sandler’s highest-grosser to that point (it made
$161 million), as well as the movie that introduced Rob Schneider’s “You can do
it!” persona, The Waterboy didn’t score with the critics. “The
Waterboy
is arguably Sandler’s most enjoyable motion picture to date, but
it’s still far from a masterpiece,” wrote James Berardinelli of ReelViews.






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11.
The Longest Yard
(2005)

Tomatometer: 30%
Box office: $158.0 million

Stepping into the role made famous by Burt Reynolds in the
1974 classic of the same name, Sandler plays Paul Crews, a disgraced NFL
quarterback who’s sent to prison after a spectacular auto accident. In the
slammer, the warden implores Crews to join his team of prison guards; Crews
suggests fielding an all-inmate team as well. The inmates are excited, as they
are finally able to give guards a taste of their own medicine.

It’s more of an
ensemble piece than the typical Sandler vehicle, but although The Longest
Yard
features a veritable All-Pro squad of acting talent (including Chris
Rock, James Cromwell, William Fitchner, and Reynolds himself), critics flagged
the film for lacking the wit and anti-authoritarian political undercurrent of
Robert Aldrich’s original. “The new film keeps about 90 percent of the original story and even some of the
original lines of dialogue, yet the changes it makes are all misguided,” wrote
Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.




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10.
Click
(2006)

Tomatometer: 31%
Box office: $137.3 million

The premise of Click is inspired. Workaholic
Michael Newman (Adam Sandler) is married to the beautiful Donna (Kate Beckinsale)
and they have two terrific kids, Ben (Joseph Castanon) and Samantha (Tatum
McCann). But he doesn’t get to see them much because he’s putting in long, hard
hours at his architectural firm in the elusive hope that Newman buys a universal
remote in the “Beyond” section of Bed, Bath, and Beyond from a wild-eyed
inventor (Christopher Walken). He soon learns that it can control virtually
every aspect of his daily life: he can adjust the volume on the family dog, fast
forward through arguments with his wife (Kate Beckinsale), hit the pause button
and deliver a punch or two to the grill of his obnoxious boss (David Hasselhoff),
and even get a running commentary courtesy of James Earl Jones. However, as he
fast-forwards to various chapters in his life, Michael realizes all of the
moments, big and small, that he’s missing.

Critics found Click‘s blend of
low-brow comedy and Capra-esque pathos a little jarring: “As a broad family
comedy this is perfectly acceptable, but from a sci-fi point of view it’s a very
pale imitation of the time travel classics it seeks to ape,” wrote Anna Smith of
Channel 4 Film.






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09.
Big Daddy
(1999)

Tomatometer: 39%
Box office: $163.4 million

The Sandman has played plenty of irresponsible
man-children; in Big Daddy, he tries to impart his slacker wisdom to an
actual child. In his biggest hit to date (it made $163 million), Sandler plays
Sonny Koufax, a lazy toll collector who finds himself caring for five-year-old
Julian when the boy’s father, Sonny’s roommate, is out of town for the weekend.
Hoodwinking social services, Koufax pretends to be Julian’s father, and the pair
causes some mild mayhem together, trying to trip rollerbladers with twigs and
urinating on the door of a McDonald’s after being denied the use of the
restroom.

Big Daddy features Sandler’s patented mix of nice and naughty,
but critics thought it was a little too sappy and mean-spirited to work. “For Sandler’s core audience of developmentally arrested males, it may all be a
little too cute,” wrote Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle.




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08.
Billy Madison
(1995)

Tomatometer: 41%
Box office: $25.5 million

Sandler toiled on Saturday Night Live as a writer
and cast member for five years, and had small parts in films like Mixed
Nuts
and Coneheads. Billy Madison was his breakout movie role,
and it established his screen persona for years to come: an overgrown kid with
an unabashed hostility toward authority but a heart of gold underneath. Billy is
a lay about whose hotelier father is unconvinced can take over the family
business; in order to win his confidence, Billy must complete his formal
education — from Kindergarten through high school — within 24 weeks.

The
result wasn’t well-received by critics, but features some gleefully juvenile
comedy, loaded with silly antics (Sandler’s shampoo/conditioner battle) and
bad-taste gems (as with the scene in which Billy dominates a dodgeball game
against a horde of elementary schoolers). “Billy Madison is ridiculous
and stupid yet, ashamedly, made me laugh from time to time,” wrote Christopher
Null of Filmcritic.com.






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07.
Anger Management
(2003)

Tomatometer: 43%
Box office: $133.7 million

Unlike Happy Gilmore, Dave Buznik, the
hero of Anger Management, is a pretty mild-mannered guy. However, after a
wild misunderstanding on an airline, he’s sentenced to anger management under
the auspices of the unconventional Buddy Ride (Jack Nicolson). Ride’s methods,
which include moving into Dave’s apartment and showing up at the office, have
the effect of pushing him to the brink of madness.

If this seemingly can’t-miss
premise never completely catches fire, it’s good for some solid laughs, as when Sandler and Nicholson duet on
“I Feel Pretty” in a stopped car during rush hour,
and a gleefully unhinged turn from John Turturro as Dave’s perpetually livid
fellow patient. “[Nicholson and Sandler] put forth fine efforts in this entirely
performance-driven film, but save for a few memorable scenes, the oil and
vinegar simply don’t mix,” wrote Mac Verstandig.




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06.
50 First Dates (2004)

Tomatometer: 44%
Box office: $120.7 million

A lighter take on the Memento/Groundhog Day
formula, 50 First Dates re-teams Sandler and Drew Barrymore. Sandler
plays Henry Roth (no, not the author of Call It Sleep), a marine-life
veterinarian who meets Lucy, a nice girl with a problem: she wakes up every
morning thinking it’s Oct. 13, 2002, and has no memory of the previous day.
Thus, Henry contrives a series of creative strategies to win Lucy’s love.

Although Sandler and Barrymore are particularly fond of the film, it received
mixed notices from the pundits: “With Sandler restrained and Barrymore sweetness
incarnate, 50 First Dates compensates for its bitty plot and half-worked
gags with a big heart,” wrote Harry Guerin of Dublin’s RTE Interactive.






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05.
Spanglish
(2004)

Tomatometer: 51%
Box office: $42.0 million

Sandler stepped outside his average Joe persona
for Spanglish, James L. Brooks’ dramedy about the domestic travails of a
well-to-do Los Angles family and its hired help. Sandler plays successful chef
John Clasky, whose greatest professional success coincides with the emotional
decline of his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) — as well as the arrival of Flor (Paz
Vega), who takes a job as a maid to provide for her daughter. Despite speaking
only rudimentary English, Flor immediately brings light to the Clasky household,
helping to raise the children and attracting the eye of John. But when Flor is
asked to move in, she brings her daughter — and a battle of wills between her
and Deborah begins.

Sandler won praise for his depiction of a solid family man
dealing with complex choices, but critics felt the film as a whole was unfocused
in its attempt to deal with issues of family, working parents, and cultural
identity. Spanglish has “some great lines, some great performances, some
very very interesting relational topics, but [it’s] un-quenching, seldom moving
and simply not funny enough to be a comedy,” wrote Ross Anthony of Hollywood
Report Card
.




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04.
Happy Gilmore
(1996)

Tomatometer: 57%
Box office: $38.6 million

Loosely based on the exploits of Boston Bruins
enforcer Terry O’Riley and a childhood friend, Happy Gilmore stars
Sandler as the title character, an amateur hockey player with virtually no
skating ability but a nasty slap shot and a fiery temper to boot. Discovering
that his powerful swing translates seamlessly to golf (and in an effort to help
his ailing grandma), Happy takes his act to the PGA tour, bringing a John
McEnroe-esque intensity to the staid game that earns him plenty of fans — and
the ire of snobby tour star Shooter McGavin. Happy Gilmore has plenty of
laughs, but hands-down the most famous scene is a no-holds-barred donnybrook
between Happy and The Price is Right host Bob Barker.

Phil Villareal of
the Arizona Daily Star called the movie “the Tiger Woods of gleefully
idiotic comedy,” and though it’s a few points short of fresh status, Happy
is held up by Sandler’s cult as one of his finest efforts.






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03.
Reign Over Me
(2007)

Tomatometer: 63%
Box office: $19.6 million

In this dramatic weepie (the title comes from the
achingly romantic Who song “Love, Reign O’er Me”), Sandler plays Charlie Fineman,
a man so consumed by the death of his wife and children in the 9/11 attacks that
he disappears into an almost childlike state. By chance, his old dental school
roommate Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) runs into him on the street; Johnson wants
to help his old friend, but is also attracted to his mischievous ways. Soon,
Alan and Charlie are staying up all night, playing video games and watching
movies, to the consternation of Alan’s wife (Jada Pinkett Smith); it’s also
clear that Charlie is seriously disturbed, and his behavior takes a darker turn.

Sandler creates an affecting portrait of a smart, funny, decent man whose life
has gone off the rails. Reign is a triumph for Cheadle and Sandler, whose
performances strew the seeds of regeneration,” wrote Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia
Inquirer
.




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02.
The Wedding Singer
(1998)

Tomatometer: 67%
Box office: $80.2 million

Riding the wave of 1980s nostalgia, Sandler scored
with The Wedding Singer, his first critical hit, and possibly the
happiest film in his oeuvre. The Sandman stars as Robbie, whose vocal prowess
and good humor brings gaiety to wedding receptions despite his sadness over the
fact his fiancée stood him up at the altar (she wanted him to be the next David
Lee Roth, not just a… wedding singer). His life turns a corner when he
meets the sweet, good-natured Julia (Drew Barrymore), who’s unfortunately
engaged to a pompous jerk. Still, true love prevails in the end, with the help
of Billy Idol (natch).

Featuring stellar guest performances (most notably Steve Buscemi as a drunken, profane best man), funny songs (Sandler’s “Somebody Kill
Me Please” is strangely affecting), and a string of sharp 1980s pop-culture
references, The Wedding Singer is one of Sandler’s most beloved movies.
“Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler have an unexpected chemistry that oozes off the
screen and steals your heart,” wrote Alex Sandell of Juicy Cerebellum.






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01.
Punch-Drunk Love
(2002)

Tomatometer: 79%
Box office: $17.8 million

Punch-Drunk Love may have baffled the Sandler
faithful (it made only $17 million at the box office), but it thrilled critics
eager to see the star take on more challenging material. In truth, it’s a
quintessential Adam Sandler film; utilizing the SNL skit “The Denise
Show” as a foundation, director Paul Thomas Anderson crafted a tale of a man
with a veneer of childlike vulnerability masking volcanic passions. Sandler
plays Barry Egan, a lonely plunger salesman who calls a phone sex operator for
companionship — and gets in over his head. Meanwhile, he meets a sweet woman
named Lena (Emily Watson) who really likes him, and allows him to stand up for
himself. Punch-Drunk Love is filled with expert supporting performances
from the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Luis Guzman,
but it’s Sandler’s show all the way, and the result is a dark, deeply mysterious
love story.

“Paul Thomas Anderson used Sandler for a very specific purpose — to
convey a sense of tough-luck awkwardness and smile-masking-frown frustration —
and it worked perfectly,” wrote Jordan Hiller of Bangitout.com

BONUS!




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Going Overboard

(1989)
Tomatometer: N/A
Box office: N/A

Before hitting it big, Sandler starred in this aquatic adventure/comedy,
about a guy who takes a job on a cruise ship in order to get a break in standup;
hilarity ensues when the ship is attacked by mercenaries. It’s one of Sandler’s
least-known films, and, judging by the trailer, that’s not a tragedy.

And finally, we thought it would be a propos to give the last word to that
great artist and social critic, Opera Man.

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