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Adam Sandler teaches Hollywood a lesson

Goofball comedies like ”The Waterball” rule the box office this fall

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Here’s an idea for a blockbuster for next fall: A hip, wisecracking urban cop is partnered against his will with a simpleminded Cajun ant. The two don’t really see eye to eye, so finally the ant charges the cop and drop-kicks him to the ground — at which point the bug is drafted by the NFL.

If the past two months are any indication, such a film will be huge. Last weekend’s jaw-dropping $39.4 million opening of Adam Sandler’s sophomoric football romp, The Waterboy, put an emphatic punchline on a wacky box office season that saw goofball comedies emerge as the season’s biggest hits, while big star-driven dramas ended up unmitigated flops. ”It’s so wild,” says Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight. ”This is the time when we get more serious. But nothing serious has done fine at all.”

Instead, after all the beans have been counted, the fall’s top three grossers will likely be the Chris Tucker-Jackie Chan buddy comedy Rush Hour; The Waterboy; and DreamWorks’ computer-animated Antz, not exactly the Oscar fare of autumns past. ”It’s pretty clear that what worked [this fall] is youth,” says Warner Bros. distribution chief Barry Reardon, ”movies targeted to young male and female audiences.”

Which is precisely the demographic that went gaga for a slow-witted, Cajun-tongued tackling machine. The mostly panned Waterboy posted the biggest three-day November/December opening ever, falling just short of The Lion King‘s $40.8 million to become Disney’s second-largest debut. It also doubled the opening weekend gross of Sandler’s Valentine’s Day smash, The Wedding Singer. That’s a key figure: After his frat-boy hits Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, the sweetly romantic Singer seemed to broaden Sandler’s appeal. ”I guess certain people thought they weren’t supposed to see an Adam Sandler movie,” says Frank Coraci, who directed Wedding and Waterboy. ”Thanks to Wedding Singer, they’re now aware his movies aren’t mean-spirited.”

Not surprisingly, Sandler’s follow-ups will not stray far from proven formulas. His next project, the June ’99 Sony comedy Big Daddy, will reteam the comic with Gilmore director Dennis Dugan. Then Sandler will receive $12 million to work again with Coraci on a New Line project in which he’ll play the son of an angel and a demon. If both those films hold true to box office form, most observers agree Sandler is a shoo-in for the $20 million club.

The same goes for Tucker: Currently earning $7 million for the spy comedy Double-O Soul (with Mariah Carey), the comedian is rumored to be receiving offers close to $20 million. Asked to explain the seemingly overnight emergence of comedy’s next generation, Mitch Goldman, president of marketing and distribution for New Line, which released Rush Hour, offers, ”People just want to be entertained.”

Granted, but then, how to explain Eddie Murphy’s goofy Holy Man, which opened to a dismal $5.1 million? As one studio exec says of Murphy: ”You can’t just put him in anything. He seems to work in broad-based family movies now.”