Released earlier this month, Sandy Wexler is Adam Sandler’s third film made exclusively for Netflix as part of his lucrative deal with the streaming company. It is two hours and 11 minutes long—the only longer Netflix film is Cary Fukunaga’s weighty child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation. Written by and starring Sandler, Sandy Wexler is a sort of funhouse mirror version of A Star is Born, a showbiz story of success, failure, and star-crossed romance that spans 20 years and includes countless celebrity cameos. The film charts the trials and tribulations of a Hollywood talent manager who seems to suffer from some unspecified neurodevelopmental disorder.
It is not a totally successful film—at least by the standards Sandler usually sets for his projects, which tend to rely on obnoxious humor and fairly rote plotting. Sandy Wexler has bizarre sight gags and some of the casual racism that has unfortunately plagued Sandler’s filmography, but it works more as a strangely melancholic, borderline surreal drama than it does as a breezy comedy. It’s also the kind of self-aware curiosity that Sandler could have only made with the blank check Netflix handed him. Sandy Wexler could very well be an anomaly—but in some ways, it seems indicative of a shift in the movie-star system, the start of an industry revolution Netflix has long promised.
The movie-star system has existed, in some form, since the dawn of Hollywood. At first, big performers were contracted to particular studios, paid weekly salaries to “belong” to Warner Bros. or MGM, and given little control over the projects they appeared in. This approach fell apart by the 1940s following various legal battles. Under the new system, big-name actors and directors became free agents who could wield enormous influence by pitting studios against each other to bid for their services. The rise of the blockbuster in recent decades has slowly chipped away at that influence. These days, there are fewer and fewer major stars who can guarantee a massive opening weekend, as studios turn instead to popular franchises to attract audiences.
After his early cult successes in the mid-’90s (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer), Sandler became the kind of guaranteed financial draw that studios relied on for more than a decade. Starting with 1998’s The Waterboy, the former Saturday Night Live cast member made 14 films in 15 years that grossed more than $100 million domestically. Almost all of them were critically reviled—we’re talking movies like Mr. Deeds, Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and Grown Ups—but it didn’t matter. Sandler’s brand as an A-lister was basically bulletproof.
In more recent years, that hasn’t been the case. Broad comedies like Jack and Jill (in which Sandler plays dual roles as brother and sister), That’s My Boy (a foul-mouthed family movie with Andy Samberg), Blended (a reunion with the Wedding Singer star Drew Barrymore), and Pixels (co-starring a giant Pac-Man) fell short of expectations. In the last five years, Sandler’s only genuine hits have been Grown Ups 2, a sequel to his comedy about overgrown men on vacation, and the animated Hotel Transylvania movies.
So it was hardly surprising when he signed his exclusive deal with Netflix, initially to create four original films for the streaming platform. To a major Hollywood studio, Sandler isn’t a sure bet anymore, especially since his films are expensive to make (usually budgeted for at least $80 million). But to Netflix, he fits the bill perfectly—he’s a proven star with the kind of algorithmic appeal the company has extensively cultivated. The Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has gushed about the performance of Sandler’s movies on the site, saying they’re among the most-streamed titles on the platform and that the initial four-picture deal has resulted in 500 million hours of viewing by subscribers (as usual, Netflix is reticent to provide more than cursory data on its viewership).
For Sandler, the attraction was simple: He gets to make whatever movies he wants, starring whomever he chooses, with no fear of box-office failure diminishing his brand. Yes, the attachment to Netflix does in and of itself seem like an acknowledgement that he doesn’t care anymore about being a traditional movie star. But he still gets to make occasional appearances in interesting indie films—he’s in Noah Baumbach’s upcoming project The Meyerowitz Stories this year—while confining his sillier work to streaming video. Or, as Sandler put it in a statement when he originally signed the deal, “When these fine people came to me with an offer to make four movies for them, I immediately said ‘yes’ for one reason and one reason only ... Netflix rhymes with ‘wet chicks.’ Let the streaming begin!”
His first two films were The Ridiculous 6 (a parody Western widely denounced for its stereotyping of Native Americans) and The Do-Over (an action comedy co-starring his fellow SNL alum David Spade, greeted with shrugs). Both felt like cheap knock-offs of his Hollywood studio offerings, slapped together to give Netflix some quick content to throw at viewers. Sandy Wexler is an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s an odd, languorous affair, narrated direct-to-camera by an assortment of stars playing themselves (like Chris Rock, Judd Apatow, Janeane Garofalo, and Lorne Michaels), all reflecting on the bizarre life of their talent manager.
As Wexler, Sandler relies on the kind of broad comic tropes he’s leaned on since his Saturday Night Live days. He wears a pair of oversized grandma glasses, shuffles with a pronounced hunch, and delivers all his dialogue in a whiny monotone. The performance is apparently an homage to Sandler’s long-time manager Sandy Wernick, but despite its heavy reliance on caricature, there’s a melancholy to Sandy Wexler’s story. He’s a determined cheerleader for all his clients, which include a struggling actress (played by Sandler’s wife Jackie), a middling pro wrestler (Terry Crews), an inept stuntman (Nick Swardson), and an abrasive comedian (Colin Quinn).
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Courtney Clarke (Jennifer Hudson), a talented singer that Sandy discovers performing in a duckling costume at a theme park. As Courtney’s fame skyrockets, Sandy lets her go and sees his C-list agency deteriorate further over the years, but eventually things come back around as Courtney recognizes that his compassion trumps his ineptness (Sandy is basically unable to maintain a conversation without devolving into mumbling weirdness, and makes tons of terrible predictions about the future success of upcoming companies like Pixar and Starbucks). Sandy Wexler is a sad treatise on the vagaries of fame and life on Hollywood’s sidelines, shot through with a ridiculously over-the-top Sandler performance.
It feels almost like a mid-’80s Woody Allen comedy—think Broadway Danny Rose with a lisp—down to its thuddingly obvious narration and vignette-y approach to storytelling. It’s also a low-concept work with minimal international appeal and no chance of gaining awards traction, the kind of movie that used to populate theaters in the spring and the fall but has now vanished to make room for more sequels and remakes. Sandy Wexler isn’t so much cinema’s future as it is its past, down to the period setting (the early 1990s) and the cast (which includes Arsenio Hall and Rob Schneider).
Sandler might not be the best ambassador for the revival of the mid-budget studio film, but right now, he’s just about all we’ve got. By giving him his eight-movie deal, Netflix has empowered Sandler to make the kind of content that even a major star couldn’t get past a studio boardroom these days. Sandy Wexler certainly isn’t going to appeal to everyone—but the new streaming-studio paradigm may remind viewers of a time when movies weren’t expected to.