20 Years On, Is ‘Happy Gilmore’ Actually A Good Comedy?
Let's unpack the shame and nostalgia of liking Adam Sandler in 2016.
The other evening, while flicking through the channels, I happened upon Happy Gilmore — the unlikely golf comedy about a fully-grown man with dangerous anger issues. I was amazed at how many of the lines were permanently seared into my brain and, 20 years after its release, it’s surprising how well the film still holds up.
Yes, I know that’s a controversial thing to say in 2016 about something made by Adam Sandler.
In Defence Of Happy Gilmore
Happy Gilmore is a classic fish-out-of-water story, with the stuffy world of pro golf busted wide open by a brash rule-breaker, who succeeds by bending the sport’s tightly-held traditions. Adam Sandler perfects the petulant child act he honed throughout Saturday Night Live, and had taken to the big screen in the previous year’s Billy Madison. He also convincingly charms Julie Bowen despite her character being privy to his numerous violent outbursts. I guess that’s what happens when friends listen to ‘Endless Love’ in the dark.
The casting of Christopher McDonald as Happy’s nemesis Shooter McGavin is perfect too. Who doesn’t want to punch his smug face, even years later when they catch him in a different movie? The true sign of a successful movie villain, after all, is when your hatred for them carries over to an unrelated role.
There are so many ridiculous moments throughout the film, and all of them work despite seemingly amping up the intensity and silliness throughout. There’s the drawn-out fist fight with Bob Barker (“The price is wrong, bitch”); an almost unrecognisable Ben Stiller as the evil nursing home overlord; Happy yelling, “are you too good for your home!?” to a golf ball that refuses to go in; his mentor Chubb’s ultimately fatal feud with a hungry gator; and the fact the film ends with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost, among others, congratulating him for winning back his Grandma’s home.
After all, Happy’s relentless hustling on the heady world of the pro golf tour is all in service to his Grandma. The scenes between the pair are the film’s most touching, and help to both soften Happy’s violent outbursts and push the story past simple juvenile humour.
The Demise Of Adam Sandler
Happy Gilmore was followed with an impressive run of successful Sandler films. The Wedding Singer proved he could be a legitimate Hollywood leading man, showcasing some very real chemistry with Drew Barrymore. The Waterboy was dumb but fun, seeing Sandler double down on his demented angry child routine, and Big Daddy repeated the Billy Madison trick of pairing Sandler with a kid (plus it has the best delivery of the words “horse shit” in cinematic history).
The three films collectively grossed half a billion dollars, and made Sandler one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. He formed his own production company, Happy Madison (I see what he did there!)… And then he made the awful Little Nicky.
This was the beginning of a string of unfunny comedies with broad premises — Anger Management and Mr. Deeds to name a few — an over-reliance on yelling as a punchline, and the continued use of Rob Schneider. Clearly Schneider knows some dark secret of Sandler’s, such is his ceaseless, baffling employment as both a sidekick, and as the star of his own Happy Madison-produced films.
It’s not as if Sandler has to continue making these broad comedies. He has branched into interesting territory throughout his career with continued success: 50 First Dates is his sweetest performance to date, Click saw him play a distracted, dark character (although the film basically rips off the plot to It’s A Wonderful Life), and he revealed previously untapped dramatic depths in Spanglish. Judd Apatow’s love letter to stand-up comedy, Funny People, also relied heavily on his dramatic chops, with Sandler playing his least sympathetic character to date. Despite the quality of Sandler’s performance in the film, it’s impossible to watch him play a joyless older actor who phones in appearances in broad studio comedies without noting the parallels.
Sandler has created an empire around his big-screen bankability, which is a remarkably impressive thing to do — the guy is an entire industry — but part of building and scaling a successful empire is a reliance on automation. It’s hard to shake the sense that Sandler is using a pretty tired formula at this stage, slotting in premises, punchlines and plot-points indiscriminately. He’s essentially making widgets.
A Netflix deal inked in late 2014 for four films over as many years suggests that Sandler isn’t likely to start taking a more nuanced approach to movie-making anytime soon. Not that he actually needs to; his films rarely lose money, are able to be made quickly with the same basic revolving cast and crew, and have netted over $2 billion at the box office. Despite universal critical disdain (a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and reports of racial insensitivity on set, The Ridiculous Six took only 30 days to become the most-watched film in Netflix history.
The First Cut Is The Deepest
Of course, this perceived dip in quality might not be evident to a 13-year-old — which is roughly the age I was when I first watched Happy Gilmore, and roughly the age at which his funny, dumb films hit you the hardest. I suspect that — like with music, like with television, like with everything — the era in which you first begin to pay proper attention is when you believe things were at their very peak. At 13, dick jokes are a revelation, a revolution. David Spade isn’t annoying yet.
So maybe Sandler isn’t actually getting worse, maybe he is instead simply making fun, silly comedies for kids — his one tried and true audience. Maybe he is honing his particular craft, still making films which are being quoted in playgrounds, being secretly watched with the volume down while parents are in the other room; films which will be fondly remembered in pieces like this in 2036.
Hopefully this is the case; there’s something nice about the fact that Sandler is still the star of these formative comedy moments. Those first funny films you love stay with you forever, even as you grow past an age where you can convincingly argue their merits. It doesn’t matter; you don’t need to. I wasn’t flicking through the channels at all last week. I pulled out my DVD copy — bought within the past few years — and re-watched Happy Gilmore. I loved it. Like all the things you adore when you are 13 years old, it still felt like home. And I certainly wasn’t too good for my home.