After more than a decade of seeing every film made by Adam Sandler and his buddies, each time hoping that this one would be better than the last one and each time being disappointed, my will was finally broken by "That's My Boy." When Sandler tries something different -- working with P.T. Anderson in "Punch-Drunk Love," with Judd Apatow in "Funny People," with James L. Brooks in "Spanglish" -- the results are at least interesting, sometimes even very good. But every time he returns to his comfort zone to make a broad comedy with his "SNL" friends and other regular collaborators, we get something miserable like "Jack and Jill," "Grown Ups," "Mr. Deeds," "Little Nicky," or "Bedtime Stories." Even the freedom of an R rating, as in "That's My Boy," doesn't help.
But then I saw "Hotel Transylvania." The cast includes Sandler doing a funny voice, plus seven other "SNL" alumni, plus some of Sandler's relatives, and it was co-written by Robert Smigel. It's sounds like a quintessential Sandler comedy, with the only major differences being that it's a cartoon and aimed at children. And guess what? It's not bad. It's not bad at all!
That's when I realized that animation might be where Sandler has always belonged. Childish humor, goofy voices, thin stories, and weak characterization all go down a lot more smoothly in a cartoon. We accept -- expect, even -- some degree of disconnect from reality when we're watching a children's animated film. I tried to picture "Hotel Transylvania" as a live-action production, and kept seeing Sandler's grinning idiot face leering at the camera, a vexing image from which animation spares us. Has he accidentally been making live-action movies all along when he should have been making cartoons?
To test this hypothesis, I re-watched "Eight Crazy Nights," the Hanukkah-themed film from 2002 that marks the only other time Sandler has headlined a cartoon. Conditions were not exactly the same. "Hotel Transylvania" is a PG-rated family-friendly affair with Sandler playing Dracula, while "Eight Crazy Nights" is PG-13, intended for Sandler's usual audience, and has him voicing a character who is essentially himself. But it's the only thing we had to work with in this scientific experiment. Let's see what happens!
What I said then: "'Eight Crazy Nights' made me laugh about four times. It strikes me as an excessively gross, dull film, an animated hybrid of 'Jackass' and 'South Park,' but lacking the originality or wit of either of those sophomoric TV series.... In most of Sandler’s films, as irritating as he can be, at least he’s a somewhat likable Everyman figure. Not so here.... In terms of creative quality, it is low. The story is certainly nothing new, and the songs – yes, it’s a musical – are simplistic and derivative. The animation is Saturday-morning-caliber. The narration is redundant.... It is one of the worst films Sandler has ever appeared in." Grade: D- [Here's the whole review.]
The re-viewing: Sandler voices three of the main characters himself: Davey (the Sandler stand-in), old man Whitey Duvall, and Whitey's twin sister Eleanore. Whitey is the rare instance of Sandler doing a "funny" voice that is actually funny. As mean as Davey is to Whitey for most of the film, it's apparent that Sandler has affection for the character, and for the type of real-life old-timers Whitey represents.
I dismissed the movie's songs as "simplistic and derivative" in my original review. For the most part, I stand by that. Sandler and his co-writers are frustratingly lazy with the lyrics, awkwardly cramming too many syllables into this line, stretching them out in that one. But there are moments of inspiration. The opening number, where Davey establishes himself as a Hanukkah Scrooge, is hilariously (and intentionally) on the nose:
"Believing in Santa's all wrong,
And Hanukkah's eight nights too long.
I hate love; I hate you; I hate me."
My theory about Sandler's approach to comedy working better in animation was validated in some ways. Davey's pointless meanness to a fat kid in a youth basketball league comes off as far less cruel when it's a cartoon rather than an actual fat kid. The gross-out humor -- deer licking poop off of Whitey; Whitey's extra-hairy naked butt; and so forth -- is likewise easier to deal with when it's not photo-realistic. Rob Schneider's performance as a Chinese waiter, with his exaggerated accent, would have seemed uncomfortably racist if it were live-action. (Think Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's.") But if you can forget that it's Schneider, who you know is not Chinese, doing the voice, it's merely outlandish and comical. The town's over-the-top reaction to the mayor's unfunny joke at the banquet -- people ripping their shirts off, jumping on the tables, deer pooping with laughter -- is something else that simply wouldn't have worked in live-action. It is by nature cartoonish, divorced from reality.
But the screenplay is still disappointingly lackluster. The simplicity of the story is fine; the cheapness of so many of the jokes isn't. As with the song lyrics, I feel like Sandler and the writers (Brooks Arthur, Allen Covert, and Brad Isaacs) keep coming up with potentially funny situations, then ruining it by taking the easiest possible punchline. This has been the curse of Sandler from the beginning, and converting it to animation doesn't entirely cure it.
Do I still hate this movie? In the spirit of the holidays, I feel more charitable toward "Eight Crazy Nights" than I once did. It still didn't make me laugh more than a handful of times, but it no longer felt as mean-spirited and gross as it used to. If you sent the script to a few comedy writers for revisions, you might have something genuinely praiseworthy. As it stands, it's tolerably amusing -- certainly not the one of the worst films Sandler has made, not after everything that's happened in the ensuing decade. Grade: C