Monday, January 12, 2009
Now to answer cinema's most burning question.
We are all aware of the general critical opinion of the movies starring actor/comedian Adam Sandler, especially the first movies in which Sandler both starring in and and co-wrote, such as Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. The plots are stupid, the humor is immature, the acting terrible, etc, etc. The consensus is that these movies amount to nothing but mindless comedy from low-grade talents. Yet still...
Despite every critical impulse in my body, despite my dislike of all pop culture that is empty and stupid... I still find these movies surprisingly satisfying. And I've never known why. I am far from alone here. These movies continue to be made on a yearly basis, and continue to gross over $100 million time and again, despite of the outright condemnation from every educated critic. I have many friends, very smart and cultured, some of them filmmakers themselves, who still keep these movies on their shelves as guilty pleasures.
Why is this? Where, buried in all the poo-poo jokes, hacky characters, and implausible storylines is the saving grace that still makes these movies work?
I stumbled on the answer by accident. And the answer is far older than cinema itself.
The reason for the continued audience appeal of movies such as Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore is that in both movies Adam Sandler and his co-writer Tim Herlihy have, either by accident or design, created stories that mirror the archetypal storyline of nearly a dozen of the classic folk and fairy tales found in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Children's and Household Tales".
First published in 1812, "Children's and Household Tales" still stands as the most well-known and often cited collection of Germanic folk tales, including such classics as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Hansel & Gretel.” In her book, “The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales,” author Maria Tatar makes extensive study of those tales that concern young male heroes and the paths of their journeys.
The first thing that one must notice about these heroes is that they are far from the braves princes and fearless dragon-slayers that one first thinks of belonging in a “fairy tale.” With only a few exceptions, these “heroes” are the exact opposite! They are fools, dullards, useless or incompetent sons who bring embarrassment to their parents. The Grimms constantly use adjectives such as: “foolish”, “naive,” “silly,” “useless,” “lazy,” or “simple” the persons least likely to deserve fame, fortune, and the love of a princess. In fact, the German version of “Aladdin”, goes so far as to rename its title character “DummHans,” (“Dumb Hans”).
Anyone who has seen an Adam Sandler comedy can plainly see that this type of character is his specialty. Billy in Billy Madison is an idiot who never legitimately graduated a single grade of school. He wastes his life uselessly laying around his billionaire father's home drinking. The title character of Happy Gilmore is loud, obnoxious, and not too bright either. He can't hold onto a job, can't hold onto a girlfriend. He doesn't seem capable of doing except get into hockey fights.
To make things worse on these empty-headed fairy tale heroes, they are always the youngest of a number of brothers. Being the youngest son was poor enough luck in those times (a father's inheritance always went to the elder brothers while the youngest got none), but compared to the foolish, useless younger brother, these older brothers always seem smarter and far more capable.
However, our young disadvantaged hero does have one important quality that his older siblings lack: compassion. His brothers may be cruel and arrogant, but the young hero is compassionate and humble. It is solely through the work of compassion and humility that these fairy tale heroes are able to overcome adversity and succeed at whatever impossible task is set before them, thus staking their claim to fortune and the hand of the princess.
In the Grimm's tale “The Queen Bee,” a young man, the trollish runt of the family, is sent by his parents to retrieve his two older brothers who have left to find their fortunes in the world. He finds them, and on on the way back home, the youngest brother must on three separate occasions stop his older brothers from performing acts of cruelty to innocent animals. He rescues an anthill the brothers wish to destroy, ducks which the brother wish to kill and eat, and a beehive the brothers wish to light on fire. They then encounter an enchanted castle in which all persons inside have been turned to stone. The brothers are presented with three impossible tasks that they each must perform to break the spell or they will be turned to stone themselves. They must first find a thousand pearls strewn across the forest, then fetch a key from the bottom of the ocean, and finally identify the youngest of the three identical princesses-the only clue being that the youngest ate a spoonful of honey before her petrification. The older brothers quickly fail and turn to stone. However, when it comes time for the youngest brother's turn, his earlier acts of compassion are profoundly rewarded. The ants he saved return and locate all of the pearls for him, the ducks dive for the missing key, and the Queen Bee identifies the youngest princess. The spell is broken and the youngest brother is offered the princess's hand in marriage. The same formula can be found in “The White Snake” where the hero's previous acts of compassion to 3 fish, a group of ants, and 3 ravens, allow him to empty a lake, rebuild a castle, and eat a mountain of bread in 24 hours.
Both Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are confronted by impossible tasks, and opposed by cruel older brothers. Billy must prove his worthiness to his father by graduating every single grade in elementary, middle, and high school within 24 weeks, or else he will lose his right to inherit his father's billion-dollar hotel chain. His “older brother” is Eric Gordon, his father's conniving and unethical right-hand man, a man who seems like the most practical heir to the business. Happy Gilmore faces the impossible task of going from a man who has never played golf in his life to a champion within a single season. If he fails, he will never earn enough money to save his grandmother's house from the bank. Happy's rival is Shooter McGavin, an arrogant and underhanded champion golfer who takes special interest in destroying Happy's chances of success.
Like the heroes of “The Queen Bee” and “The White Snake,” both Billy and Happy find success due to the help of allies they have gained through demonstrations of compassion and humility. Billy befriends and defends the losers and the geeks of the elementary school, earning their allegiance. A more important ally comes from the schoolteacher Veronica Vaughn, who becomes Billy's tutor and the story's princess figure. Veronica is at first disgusted by Billy. However, she turns in his favor, not based on any skills or intelligence shown by Billy, but when she witnesses Billy commit and act of compassion and humility in order to save one of his schoolmates from embarassment. Happy Gilmore contains an unsurprisingly similar character in PGA PR person Virginia Venit. Happy may be loud, obnoxious, and crude, but he is also a loving, devoted caretaker to his sweet helpless grandmother. Virgina is won over to his side after seeing the compassionate and humble side of his nature. Happy's second helper is an ex-pro named Chubbs, who provides Happy with a near-magical collection of gifts to help Happy find success. Chubbs is willing to help happy from the start, but Happy is only able to reap the benefits of Chubbs's goodwill once he is able and willing to give a demonstration of humility and ask for his assistance.
The second acts of the Grimm's fairy tales usually end in success for their naive heroes. They now are rich, successful, and have a beautiful princess as their wives. However, the struggle for happiness is not over. Invariably, the older brothers return and, jealous over their inferior sibling's fortunes, attempt to steal away the newfound kingdom. Like clockwork, so do the evil older brother figures in our study films. Once it looks like Billy will succeed at legitimately graduating high school, Eric Gordon returns and uses lies and coercion to persuade Billy's father to hand him the company prematurely. Just as Happy is about to earn enough money on through the PGA to save his grandmother's house, Shooter McGavin sabotages Happy's last tournaments and then purchases that very house right from under Happy's nose.
But the Grimm's fairy tale heroes don't go down without a fight, and neither do Sandler's characters. The heroes return in the end and defeat their jealous brothers without mercy. Though they have shown compassion for others throughout, they show none for their rivals in the end (most of the Grimm's tales of this nature end in a bloodbath.) In this third act, the hero is no longer simple-minded and unskilled, but has seemed to gain the indispensable qualities of his helpers, making him strong and wise. In Billy Madison, Billy reclaims his father's business by challenging, and defeating Eric in an academic competition. Happy not only comes back and defeats Shooter in the championship round of the tournament, but does so by using an impossible bank-shot he learned under Chubbs's tutelage. Though Sandler resists forcing his own characters to strike the death blow that finally defeats his rivals, it is still performed in both movies through minor supporting characters whom Billy and Happy have also won over to their sides.
We can learn from these two examples that even though a script may have a number of weak elements, it can still be successful with audiences as long as it structures itself around a strong, tried-and-true story formula. Compare these two movies with other broad comedies that aim for the same type of humor that have completely failed with audiences. You will see that the differences are stark.
There are fairy tale archetypes throughout the Sandler/Herlihy collection of work. The Waterboy follows the common storyline of a boy defeating an ogre mother-figure and winning a princess. (In some fairy tales, the ogre or witch merely represents the mother. Sometimes, like in Waterboy, the ogre and mother are one in the same.) Click is extremely similar to a number of folktales that tell of a man who finds a magical item that at first brings him riches, then doom.
Unfortunately, a fairy tale archetype can't solve everything. The 2000 movie Little Nicky has a premise that could not more obviously have come straight from a fairy tale: Nicky, the good-hearted and half-witted youngest son of the Devil, is sent by his father to earth on a quest to recapture his evil brothers. On the way, he learns about humanity and falls in love. However Little Nicky is an unwatchable movie. It is by far the worst written, worst directed, worst performed, and least funny movie in Adam Sandler's body of work.
I guess, eventually, talent has to count for something.
* All factual folktale information has been gathered from “The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales,” by Maria Tatar, First Edition.
** Please note I made special effort to always refer to Sandler's work as “movies,” not “films”. There's a big difference.