Over the years the story of Peter Pan has been retold so many times in so many incarnations that it is diluted to the point where it can be tough to recall J.M. Barrie’s original tale was steeped in the tragedy of perpetual adolescence. Indeed, the title of Barrie’s 1904 play/1911 novel has always seemed crucial to me – Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Not The Boy Who COULDN’T Grow Up. The Boy Who WOULDN’T Grow Up. Despite all the fairytale aspects the title suggests, young Petey is in a way just suffering from an advanced form of denial. In Barrie’s text when Mrs. Darling offers to adopt Pan and, consequently, send him off to “school” and an “office” he declares: “Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.”
Adam Sandler first made his mark playing a variety of recurring characters (who were mostly just the same) on Saturday Night Live before earning a few supporting parts in comedic movies. His first role as a so-called leading man was as the title character in Billy Madison, a severely immature 27 year old heir to a fortune who in order to prove his responsibility to his father is forced to re-enroll in grades 1-12 and pass them on all his own within 24 weeks. Long story short, it set the template for all future Sandler roles – A Man-Child. From the combative hockey player turned golf pro in Happy Gilmore to the apathetic layabout law school grad who never took the bar in Big Daddy, he was generally a rageaholic with no intention of acting his age until forced circumstances called his hand. Heck, even in The Wedding Singer, perhaps his sweetest and most earnest part, he lives in his sister’s basement and keeps his money in a jar on top of the refrigerator.
Enter: Paul Thomas Anderson, the indie auteur who confessed to having a soft spot for Sandler’s loudmouth comedies and who was intelligent enough to see Sandler’s sole schtick and harness it for something special in 2002′s Punch Drunk Love. There Sandler played Barry Egan, a seller of novelty toiletries, who, like so many other characters in his canon, was a man-child with Anger Management issues. But here that volatile streak was brought on by his seven whacked out sisters who mentally and emotionally abuse him on end and despite a few odds and ends that seem weird simply for the sake of being weird, Barry’s arc felt both real and (here’s the key) earned. Truly earned. It was a revelation and suggested a depth of feeling that I dare say had up until that point seemed well out of his range.
While continuing to dabble in the same sort of movies with his own production company (Happy Madison Productions) he also kept trying to prove his dramatic chops with other filmmakers – from James L. Brooks’ Spanglish to Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me to ultimately and most importantly Judd Apatow’s Funny People. In that film Sandler played George Simmons, an ultra-successful comedian in his 40′s who, nonetheless, is self-absorbed and emotionally shallow……sort of a man-child. He finds out he has a potentially debilitating disease. He takes a young comedian under his wing. He tries to re-woo “the girl who got away.” It sounds formulaic and, in a way, it is, though, in another way, it’s not. It’s also not entirely successful but it’s trying, it’s Apatow trying to do something and be someone different. And that’s commendable. And as the film ends, Sandler’s Simmons has emerged from the inevitable end of the second act downturn to realize he needs to change.
Sandler himself, however, appears to have failed to heed that film’s message and intent, because since that time he has entirely re-covered himself in his trusty Happy Madison blanket. Grown Ups (“Sandler and his movies have definitely fallen off the cliff” – AM’s own Red Georges) led to Just Go With It (“contains not one ounce of substantive value”- Sam Fragoso) which led to Jack and Jill (“the worst of the worst” – Sam again). Heck, throw Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star in there – which Sandler wrote and produced – and his last four films have earned 8 Razzie Nominations.
This weekend brings us the latest Sandler “delicacy” – That’s My Boy. No doubt you have seen the “save yourselves!” preview in which he plays the severely immature father of a son he has not seen in years and whose wedding he decides to crash. In fact, while suffering through the trailer one cannot help but imagine that Billy Madison might have grown up to be the Adam Sandler of That’s My Boy. Which is to say, of course, that Billy Madison would not have grown up at all.
One could say the same of Sandler. I can’t help but picture Leslie Mann of Funny People as Wendy Darling and Adam Sandler as Pan himself. “Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ADAM SANDLER? ARE YOU GOING TO SUBJECT YOURSELF TO “THAT’S MY BOY”?