Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Review - Happy Gilmore

February 18, 2021

Happy Gilmore – US, 1996

In the twenty-five years since the release of Dennis Dugan’s Adam Sandler film Happy Gilmore, a narrative has develop regarding the quality of both Sandler’s films and his performances in them. The theory goes something like this: If Sandler is starring in a film written by him, both the film and Sandler are underwhelming; however, if the film is the creation of a respected director or screenwriter, not only is it worth-watching, but Sandler’s performances are worthy of acclaim and nominations. Compare, for example, the critical responses to Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, The Meyerowitz Stories, and Uncut Gems to those of The Ridiculous 6, Pixels, The Waterboy, and Grown Ups. They’re truly night and day.
To say that Sandler plays against type in the first set of films would be slightly misleading, for it is Sandler himself who created the “type” he is often derided for regularly playing, That role surfaced in his 1995 comedy Billy Madison, in which, according to the description on IMDB, he played an “immature and lazy man” who is forced to repeat grades 1 – 12, a concept that was actually the basis for one of the better Beavis and Butthead cartoons. The difference of course is that that duo’s exploits lasted for just 15 minutes; Billy Madison has a running time of 89.
Sandler’s later “self-created” roles moved away from lazy, but never quite escaped immature. I suppose that’s part of his appeal – he’s the adult whose response to the world more resembles that of an unsophisticated, self-centered, horny, bipolar teenager than a grown man whose worldview has been impacted by successes and failures, as well as loves and losses. When his characters cry, for example, the audience is expected to laugh, not sympathize. Not so in the later collection of films.
Sandler followed Billy Madison up with Happy Gilmore, a film about a failed hockey player who finds his skills on the ice transfer surprisingly well to golf – well, to one aspect of it, at least. For the rest, he needs one of those incredible “80s movie” montages ridiculed by South Park in the season-six episode “Asspen,” you know, the kind in which a character’s skills go from pitiful to amazing in an astonishingly short amount of time. Sandler’s character, Happy Gilmore, is pretty much what you’d expect him to be based on the actor playing him. He’s short-fused, his speech is prone to abrupt rises in tone and anger, and he’s quick with the insult. He’s also eccentric enough to yell at a golf ball when it doesn’t – in his words – “get in [it’s] home,” and he starts a fist fight with Bob Barker, then the host of a popular game show called “The Price Is Right.” Ah, but he’s also got a heart of gold. See, his motivation for playing golf is not to achieve fame and fortune, but to earn enough money to save his grandmother’s house from foreclosure.
In the process of doing so, he meets a young woman, who falls for him (don’t ask me why), hires a homeless man as his caddie, and incurs the wrath of the requisite establishment baddie. Here, that role comes in the form of Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), an arrogant PGA pro still in search of his first winner’s jacket. The role of Happy’s love interest, Virginia Venit, goes to Julie Bowen, and despite Bowen’s calm demeanor, grace, and overall likability, she is never able to convince us that Happy is such a catch that her character would overlook his sizable defects and fall for him. Carl Weathers has a fun role as Happy’s coach. He infuses the role with both grandiosity and class, and this almost makes up for the completely formulaic arc of his character. Just how many films have we seen in which a man experiences failure and has to seek help from someone whose advice he previously rejected?  
I don’t mean to imply that there is anything inherently wrong with not deviating from established formula. After all, plenty of decent movies follow familiar arcs. The problem with Happy Gilmore is that Sandler’s character prevents that arc from being truly successful. Simply put, Happy Gilmore is a jerk for far too long for audiences to completely invest in his long-term happiness. Whenever Virginia gazed at him lovingly, I wondered what she was attracted to. After all, I’d seen the same things she’d seen, and I found myself empathizing more with the young woman who breaks up with him in the opening scene.
Are there aspects of the film that work? Certainly. The rivalry between Happy and Shooter is well developed, and their dialogue has a snappiness that is likely to make you long for more of their banter. Happy’s grandmother is well-played by Francis Bay, who later appeared as the rapping grannie in The Wedding Singer, and I enjoyed the surreal scenes of the senior home being operated like a sweatshop by a sadistic orderly humorously played by Ben Stiller. Also engaging was Happy’s first golf tournament, for it handles his realization of his rather embarrassing weaknesses particularly well. And then there’s the characteristic that makes Happy stand out from his competitors, the way he runs up to the golf ball to hit it. It is comic gold.
Also, the good does not completely compensate for the bad. Perhaps if the film has spent more time developing the romance and less on profanity-laced outbursts and stale slapstick vehemence, it would have found the proper combination of heart and eccentricity. Sandler has found great success with characters who are coping with life’s many twists and turns, and in those movies, he reacts in the way average people do. Here, as in many of the films he has a hand in writing, he makes the mistake of thinking that rudeness and violence are forgivable so long as they are delivered in situations more akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon than real life, for while they can be, the film’s minor characters must be in on the joke. In other words, eccentricity is best in an eccentric world, a la the Naked Gun movies, not one in which the eccentric is the outlier. This is something Sandler showed more understanding of just two films later in The Wedding Singer. Of course, then he made Dirty Work, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, and Little Nicky, so I guess the lesson didn’t stick. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 stars

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