Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Leave they did. In response to which Netflix gave an explanation that is so predictable as to be a cliche: “The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of—but in on—the joke.”
First, of course, members of that "diverse cast" walking off set in protest would seem to suggest that they are not, in fact, in on the joke. Second, though, there's the claim that Ridiculous 6 is a "broad satire of Western movies." Which brings us back to the half-life of Sandler's comedy. Is Ridiculous 6 abiding by, or violating, Poe's Law? Has Sandler earned the right to claim, as Netflix does on his behalf, the moral amnesty of satire?
Sandler's films—the fart-joke-studded comedies, at any rate, that he's best known for—are, of course, ridiculous. But slapstick and satire are extremely different things. With the Ridiculous 6 controversy, the Sandlerian approach to the world—comedy that is smug and self-deprecating at once, comedy that both celebrates underdogs and revels in the cruelties flung at the them, comedy that is accountable to nothing but itself—is attempting to claim the mantle of cultural criticism. Here is a collection of juvenile jokes, the stuff of the tween boys and locker rooms, colliding with a trend that is sometimes derided as "p.c. culture," but that can also be understood more broadly as empathy culture. Here is Sandler's ethic of whimsical sociopathy being forced to reckon with the occasionally inconvenient fact that movies operate society.
The films of Sandler's "ridiculous" genre do, indeed, violate Poe's law. But that's not because they're offensive. It's because they're insipid. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore and Grown Ups and Jack and Jill ... these films give no indication that they are self-aware or remotely critical of the subjects they take on. They may deal, if tangentially, with serious topics—race (Blended) and gay marriage (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and, um, the Arab-Israeli conflict (You Don't Mess With the Zohan)—but they lack evidence of the intellectual infrastructure that is a basic requirement of satire.
Compare Sandler's stuff to the work of, say, Louis C.K., whose jokes take on sexism and entitlement and complicated ideas of privilege and the lack of it. Or to the work of Key and Peele or Sarah Silverman or Nick Kroll or Chelsea Peretti or pretty much any other comedian who's ascendant right now. Their films and shows and sets resonate with the culture. The questions society grapples with collectively—matters of race and gender and class—seem to guide them. There's a sense of animating generosity in their work, even when it involves fart jokes.
And then here is Adam Sandler, making a movie whose costumes don't bother to distinguish between the Apache and the Comanche and whose script involves the direction, "Sits-on-Face squats down behind the teepee and pees, while lighting up a peace pipe."
Last year, the Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri claimed that Sandler "might be the most important comedian of his generation," attributing the importance in large part to "the Sandler persona’s simmering, nuclear self-hate." As an actor, Ebiri noted, Sandler "plays both the shtick and the heart at the same level of non-commitment"—a tendency that "might be annoying to some (okay, many ... fine, most) critics, but it could be the key to Sandler’s appeal. Maybe it’s what makes him more like the average American."
Maybe. The problem is that the indolent sense of self-loathing extends, in Sandler's films, beyond the characters he plays. The loathing here is equal-opportunity. Fat jokes. Asian jokes. Women jokes. Everyone is a target; and the impression this gives is not of Sandler as a kind of omnivorous satirist, but rather of Sandler as someone who is willfully unthinking about his mockery of other people. As the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips put it, "People of color, to say nothing of women, who have been marginalized, patronized or humiliated by a stupid joke in an Adam Sandler movie over the last few years constitute the biggest club in modern Hollywood. And until last week, that club was one of the least heralded, if only because its members have been putting up with the demeaning treatment for a century."
They aren't anymore. And that's a good thing for filmmaking, even if it's less of a good thing for the making of Ridiculous 6. Sandler's comedy is based, above everything else, on entitlement. Even his slapstickiest characters suggest that the sheer fact of wanting—a woman, an inheritance, a trophy—is enough to entitle them to the objects of their desire. They are privileged, like Sandler himself, but they do the worst thing one can do with privilege: They take it for granted. Netflix's defense of its collaboration with Sandler is similar in its blithe self-absorption: The whole project is proposing to avenge a group of people who have long found themselves on the receiving end of Hollywood's mockery by way of jokes about peepees and teepees. The filmmakers are defining "satire" according to the people telling the jokes—rather than the people who are meant to be doing the laughing.