Even graphic-novel pioneer Alan Moore has decried the superhero genre as “culturally catastrophic,” admonishing a society that has “[given] up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in.” So once again the media bow before the latest superhero franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past. By now we should be able to admit that this has nothing to do with cinematic art but is simply part of the consumerist routine in which reviewers are now willingly complicit.
X-Men’s latest time-twisting plot convolutions (adapted from the 1981 comic book of the same name) repeats narrative ideas turned into sci-fi cliché by the 1984 movie The Terminator. The demolition-derby special effects exploit quasi-political allegories, mixed with pop-culture trivia (never mind trivializing the landmark 1967 Moody Blues album Days of Future Passed).
Days of Future Past “normalizes” the advertising process of brand-loyalty where moviegoers stick with the retread story of sci-fi mutants (tired metaphors for social outcasts and political special-interest groups) on yet another mission using their queer special talents for mindless noisy spectacle. As Moore complained, the dominance of this childish, unrealistic filmmaking leaves “the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage.”
Still, the Lamestream assailed Sandler’s affectionate, often ribald humanity with barely veiled political invective, branding him tasteless or corny (while praising the undeniable coarseness of The Hangover and its vulgar, politically correct ilk). This was backlash. Sandler had outgrown the casual impudence of his early career; his comic teasing and evident critique of the status quo went beyond the media’s narrow-minded self-justifications. (Jack and Jill’s bold yet endearing satire on ethnic shame was denounced mostly by critics who deny their own ethnicity.) Reviewers were unprepared for a social vision that originated in Sandler’s open-hearted humor; he never kowtowed to what was PC or to Democratic partisanship. Instead, Sandler comedies, like his new film Blended, are always about unity.
Combining Jim (Sandler), an Everyguy widower with three daughters, and Lauren (Drew Barrymore), a divorcée with two sons, Blended reworks the premise of The Brady Bunch but confronts that situation’s most awkward, unprime-time possibilities — menarche, masturbation, obsessive sadness, ADHD, and a cherub whose growly-voiced imaginary friend suggests deep neurosis. These crises led to the nonpartisan virtues of Sandler’s Spanglish, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Jack and Jill, and the Grown-Ups series. Their very realistic demography reflects concerns that — before the millennium’s discomforting polarization took hold — used to be called populist.
Our cultural elite frown at Sandler’s comic vision because they have accustomed themselves to a fragmented body politic. The difference between Blended and The Brady Bunch (and its ultra-PC update, the acclaimed TV series Modern Family) is that Sandler doesn’t reduce his idiosyncratic characters to clowns whose punch lines preach tolerance between TV commercials. Sandler’s populism uses familiar behavioral types to find the often uncomfortable essence of frail emotions and overwhelming need: Jim’s gaucheness, Lauren’s awkwardness, their conflicting eccentricities (a parent’s lack of gender affinity with his/her progeny), and the hidden practicalities they share (driving the same SUVs).
Blended’s “political statement” is in the fun Sandler has grappling with less than ideal living arrangements — circumstances that include divorce, unorthodox romance, sexual and cultural disparity. Blended could have been titled “Chaos,” yet it is held together by Sandler and Barrymore’s unglamorous likability (previously seen in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates). They play the beleaguered working class, not the mythological “middle class” always touted by politicians. Jim and Lauren come to terms with their struggles and accept their commonality — a romantic embodiment of esprit de corps.
TV shows about blended families oversimplify and repeat consensus; these contrived “families” result from polling and advertisers’ surveys. So the very moving Spanglish – an artistic breakthrough for Sandler, more successful than his “art“ film Punch-Drunk Love – also broke from the sitcom format. Its class and generational contrasts shamed Hollywood privilege (and those who covet privilege). Sandler and Spanglish writer-director James L. Brooks had the audacity to step back from smugness, analyzed it, and then offered sympathy. (In the insufferable Funny People, Sandler and Judd Apatow went straight for mawkishness.) Sandler transcends his TV origins by exploring social complexity — in Little Nicky’s moral challenges, the multi-ethnic camaraderie of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and the quasi-political sentiments of Reign Over Me (which dared confront the fallacy of Dylanolatry, a key liberal shibboleth).
Sandler’s best films portray a stranger-than-fiction reality that is at times surreal; in Blended this happens when Jim and Lauren bring their broods on a “Blended Family-moon,” a getting-to-know-you retreat at a South African resort where motley domestic arrangements are de rigeur, part of the carnival of nontraditional contemporary customs. Replete with an ever-changeable, ever-mocking chorus of African performers (led by the agile, grinning Terry Crewes), this refuge presents a world of life lessons in sketches that have storybook, sex-farce qualities. Sandler’s South African haven looks like the fantasia of Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time music video even as it makes real the exotic extravagance of Broadway’s The Lion King. That’s global populism for you.
Here, problems of blending and emotional adjustment are resolved through outlandish yet credible comic routines. Every parent can recognize the willful children in all Sandler’s films — his Grown-Ups series especially — but the hijinks also provide insight into adults who, nostalgic for their own youth, get baffled by their unpredictable offspring: When Lauren risks a hang-gliding venture, it symbolizes the chanciness of parenthood (and partnerhood) without forgetting the child within.
The key to Sandler’s misunderstood films is that personal lessons are also social instruction. Two scenarios:
1) Jim raises his oldest daughter Hilary (Bella Thorne) like a son whom he calls “Larry.” Her androgynous confusion confronts the immediate, changing terms of contemporary athletics and courtship. Sexual behavior, always central to Sandler’s satire, is never conventionally conservative or liberal — as proved by I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, where same-sex humanity preceded the president’s “evolving” position on the subject (ironically, that 2007 film is what sparked Sandler’s disapproval rating from cultural gatekeepers).
2) Lauren’s response to her son Brendan’s (Braxton Beckham) pubescent urges sets up a pharmacy gag mocking the repeated cliché “What a progressive mother you are!” The scene upholds Sandler, director Frank Coraci, and screenwriters Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera’s personal family values while exceeding partisan convention. This is precisely the conservative view that drives stupid, uncomprehending reviewers to hostility. Without stressing political clichés, Sandler’s films leave critics helpless to think for themselves. Anyone who believes Sandler isn’t political enough overlooks his all-embracing concern for human relations. They simply don’t appreciate the richness of what his humor conserves.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.