What the Hell Happened to Adam Sandler? by David Bax
I’ve come to understand that Billy Madison is not as great a movie as I thought it was when I was thirteen. Yet I know – or at least I fully believe – that it is still good in its own, weird way. It belongs in a category with The Jerk and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; movies that overcome their aesthetic and constructional flaws by being nearly pure manifestations of their stars’ idiosyncratic comic sensibilities. The slow motion shot near the end of Madison in which Chris Farley makes out with a person-sized penguin is truly bizarre but also very funny because Adam Sandler has allowed us to see the world the way he does and understand what he finds humorous.
That Sandler is almost completely gone from his newest vehicle, Jack and Jill. Even when he does show up, he is quickly stifled by the newer Sandler’s condescending brand of populism. Strange touches like the casting of David Spade as a woman with whom Sandler’ characters attended high school or the site of Al Pacino, as himself, lying down on sweat-stained sheets and inhaling deeply are sparse. In the place of more of this peculiarity, we are treated to motifs of predictable scatological humor and broad, uninspired physicality with which a comedian of Sandler’s experience should be ashamed to be associated.
In case you care, the plot concerns Sandler’s character, Jack, a successful commercial director trying to make it through the holidays while his annoying and socially abhorrent twin sister, Jill (also Sandler), visits. Meanwhile, Jack’s business is about to collapse unless he can convince Pacino to star in a Dunkin Donuts ad.
Within the film, the explanation of the plot is possibly even less subtle than what I wrote above. For instance, we learn that Jack’s business is about to go bankrupt and that they have over 200 employees in a scene where Jack says, “We’re about to go bankrupt! We have over 200 employees!” Later, we are reminded that the deadline to secure Pacino is approaching when Tim Meadows, as Jack’s partner, abruptly states, “We only have five days to get Pacino.” One pivotal scene, a late night argument between the siblings about Jack’s selfish attempts to exploit Pacino’s infatuation with Jill (yes, really) for his own gain, happens entirely off screen. Though it’s referenced multiple times, the scene itself was apparently cut in favor of more bathroom gags because we only learn about it the next morning with Jill’s obviously ADR’ed dialog to Jack’s gardener.
Oh, the gardener. His name is Felipe and he is from Mexico. The many jokes about him sneaking across the border are forgivable because they’re really jokes about the white family’s discomfort around Mexicans. But that relatively astronomical level of intellect doesn’t last long. The movie graduates from being merely very bad to being repulsive when Jill accompanies Felipe to his family reunion. What follows is a horrifying montage of Latin American stereotypes, reaching its zenith (or nadir) when a blindfolded Jill swings at a piñata, misses and knocks Felipe’s abuelita unconscious. Luckily, she comes to when family members begin to force-feed her jalapeños.
There might be a word other than racism to describe this but I don’t care to look for it. I’m comfortable calling this sequence racist. To prove me right, the next development relies on the hoary trope of Mexican food leading to violent digestive problems. The year is 2011 and people all over America eat Mexican food on a regular basis. Will young people – presumably the PG-rated film’s target audience – even recognize this stereotype?
I’ll forego discussing the embarrassing misuse of talented actors, the occasional contradictions the film makes concerning its own message about family and the fact that, at one point, it turns into a blatant commercial for a particular cruise line. Instead I’ll relate an occurrence at the screening I attended. After one particularly insulting joke (a variation on the phrase “make a run for the border”), I was confused by what I thought was the sound of a person clapping. I looked down the row to see one of my fellow audience members repeatedly slapping himself in the forehead out of frustration. That was the funniest part of the movie for me.